Why is it that more women die of heart disease than men, yet men are more frequently diagnosed with heart disease according to the American Heart Association?
Many would say it’s a man’s world especially as it relates to medical and treatment studies and equality when it comes to protecting and preventing women against heart disease. It’s important to understand that heart disease is under-discussed and under-diagnosed in women.
Heart Disease is the most common cause of death among women throughout the world affecting 1 in 4 women
Heart Disease accounts for more deaths than all forms of female cancers combined including breast, lung and ovarian cancer.
Women experience similar symptoms as men of heart disease including chest pain, chest tightness and numbness in the arms and neck. Women experience other symptoms including nausea, vomiting, stomach discomfort, fatigue, shoulder pain and back pain which are unique to women. Normal hormonal symptoms of peri-menopause and menopause including heart palpitations and pounding and irregular heartbeats can feel like an underlying heart problem. 50% of all heart attacks are mistaken for less serious problems and can increase your risk of dying from heart disease. All of these symptoms should be discussed with your health care provider even if they seem directly connected to peri-menopause and menopause.
Does Peri-Menopause and Menopause increase your risk of heart disease?
It’s well known that a woman’s risk of heart disease increases after menopause. This happens as a result of the typical bodily and hormonal changes associated with menopause including high blood pressure, increases in LDL (the bad) cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar and a decrease in lean muscle mass. Blood vessel may become stiffer which can affect the quality of the heart function.
Poor sleep and depression are also associated with peri-menopause and menopause which increase a woman’s risk of heart disease.
Does Hormonal Replacement therapy (HRT) help prevent heart disease?
HRT may benefit heart disease by relaxing the blood vessels throughout the body including the heart, improve cholesterol levels, improve blood sugar in women with diabetes and lower levels of plaque buildup in arteries. When women start HRT before age 60 or within 10 years of menopause it may lower the risk of heart disease and diabetes later in life. When HRT is started after age 60 the potential risks may outweigh the benefits. The American Heart Association does not recommend taking HRT to improve heart health since medical studies do not find any extra protection again heart disease.
Risk Factors Affecting Women and not Men
Pregnancy is actually the first “stress test” a woman experience. Pregnancy complications such as hypertension of pregnancy (Pre-eclampsia) , preterm labor, small for gestational age baby, and gestational diabetes put a woman at risk for heart disease.
Systemic Autoimmune Diseases including Rheumatoid Arthritis, Systemic Lupus and Psoriasis put you at an increased risk for heart disease.
Depression is more common in women than men and is associated with high-risk behaviours (drugs, cigarette smoking) and non-compliance to medications which increases your risk of heart disease.
Traditional Risk Factors
It’s important to understand the traditional risk factors for heart disease since 90% of women have one or more risk factors. They include:
High Blood Pressure (140/90 – either one of those numbers consistently is a risk factor)
High Lipid panel (Cholesterol)
Obesity Epidemic BMI>30
A family history of heart disease
A good defence makes for the perfect offence since 80% of heart disease can be prevented
We know many foods we eat and certain habits such as smoking and excessive alcohol use have harmful effects on our health both short and long term.
Eat a heart-healthy diet
Exercise for 30 minutes on most days of the week-150 minutes/week
Maintain a healthy weight keeping your BMI<30
Lifestyle habits including getting quality sleep and managing stress
Don’t smoke, use tobacco or drink excessive amounts of alcohol
Get regular health screenings
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women in every major developed country and most emerging economies
Since heart disease accounts for 1 in 4 deaths in women, women need to be educated and proactive in finding out their risks of developing heart disease. One woman dies every 80 seconds from heart disease. Heart disease is the #1 killer of women and should not be thought of as a “man’s disease” any longer by the medical community nor by women. Awareness, education and prevention are the key strategies to preventing heart disease in both women and men. You have to be your best health care advocate when it comes to your health, especially heart disease.
More about the author
Dr. Sheryl A. Ross, aka “Dr. Sherry”—Ob/Gyn, author, and health expert—has been a passionate advocate for women’s health for over 25 years. In addition to her practice, Dr. Sherry is also a spokesperson ambassador for the American Heart Association and Go Red, the association’s national movement to end heart disease and stroke in women.