How Women Can Take Better Care of Their Heart Health

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women—and the number of those at risk continues to increase.

How Women Can Take Better Care of Their Heart Health

Maybe you’ve heard the alarming statistics concerning women’s heart health and gender differences in treatment and survival: 90 percent of women in the U.S. have one or more risk factors for heart disease or stroke. Women are more likely to die from a first heart attack than men, too—and when women do survive heart attacks and strokes, they have more complications.

As Holly Anderson, MD, Director of Education and Outreach for the Perelman Heart Institute, pointed out on The Doctor Oz Show, “Heart disease remains the number one cause of death for women—more than all cancers combined—and it is on the rise, especially in young women, ages 29 to 45.”

Women need to become aware of specific cardiovascular conditions they face, steps to take when interacting with their primary healthcare provider and what to do if they land in the emergency department (ED).

Why are younger women having more heart woes?
Rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes, both of which are risk factors for cardiovascular diseases, are climbing among premenopausal women. In the U.S., obesity rates are the highest among middle-age adults (42.8 percent for 40- to 59-year-olds) while type 2 diabetes affects around 15 million adult women.

Know this . . .
Starting at age 20, women should have their blood pressure checked at least every two years and their LDL and HDL cholesterol, triglyceride and blood sugar levels checked every four to six years. Women at higher risk due to age, weight, lifestyle habits and family history need to be checked more frequently.

Post-menopausal women should have regular health checks that include assessments of HDL and LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, weight and smoking status. If your doc doesn’t suggest it, insist.

The differences between men’s and women’s heart woes
Almost two-thirds of women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease experience no previous symptoms. If they do have symptoms, they may show up at an older age and be distinctly different than men’s. Also, women take longer to get medical help after the onset of a heart attack; are more apt to have other complicating health problems (in part because they’re older); respond differently to treatments; and are not given comparable treatments.

Clues you can use
A month before a heart attack, a woman may report unusual fatigue (71 percent), shortness of breath (42 percent), indigestion (39 percent), anxiety (36 percent), a rapid heart rate (27 percent), arms feeling weak or heavy (25 percent) and/or sleep disturbances (48 percent). That’s why Dr. Jennifer Haythe, a specialist in women’s heart health from Columbia University in New York, says, “It is my hope that women would go to the hospital more often for symptoms that MAY be heart related and demand from doctors that they not be overlooked or told they are hysterical.”

What healthcare providers can do to make sure you survive and thrive
A 2018 review of studies found that when a woman went to the ED for a heart attack, her chances of survival were substantially better if a female doctor worked on her. However, according to a separate 2018 study from the Cleveland Clinic, when HCPs followed a four-step protocol for the most severe type of heart attack, it eliminated or reduced gender disparities in care and outcomes typically seen in this type of event. 

To mitigate the problem, ED’s can add more female physicians to their staffs, and medical training programs can make sure to emphasize how heart disease differs in men and women. Women should also talk with their HCP and cardiologist (if under care of one) about their awareness of the gender discrepancies in diagnosis, treatment and outcomes and find out which hospitals in the area are known to practice gender-neutral protocols in their EDs.

Medically reviewed in November 2019.

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