Women should watch for signs of heart disease
photo by: Contributed
When your heart isn’t working well, it affects all of your body’s systems. Heart disease is the nation’s leading cause of death, and it causes about 1 in every 5 female deaths in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Heart disease is any condition that affects the heart muscle and structure, blood vessels or electrical system. It includes diseases of the arteries, which transport blood away from your heart, and veins, which return the blood to your heart. It also includes conditions such as heart attacks, atrial fibrillation and stroke.
“Everybody, regardless of gender, can be at risk for heart disease,” said Dr. Christina Salazar, a cardiologist with Cardiovascular Specialists of Lawrence. “Women have similar heart problems to men, but they can present differently, which can lead to different outcomes and longer diagnosis times.”
Because heart disease can present differently in men and women, it is important to know the signs and symptoms of a cardiac episode and know when and where to seek help.
“Women shouldn’t forget that they are more likely to die from heart disease,” Salazar said. “They need to be aware of what heart disease is and know the signs and symptoms.”
Common symptoms of heart disease include:
• Discomfort, pain or pressure in your chest
• Dizziness or lightheadedness
• Leg swelling
• Shortness of breath
“Just like anyone, women should look out for chest discomfort that radiates to the arm, neck, jaw or back that happens at rest or with exertion,” Salazar said. “The most common symptom in women is chest discomfort, pain, pressure, heaviness or tightness. However, women are more likely than men to present with shortness of breath, palpitations, lightheadedness and fatigue.”
If you have a sudden onset of chest pain that does not go away, you’re struggling to breathe or you pass out, you need to go to the emergency department.
What causes heart disease?
Heart disease can be caused by a multitude of lifestyle factors or medical conditions including:
• Congenital heart issues
• Excessive alcohol consumption
• High blood pressure (hypertension)
• High cholesterol
• Low or no exercise
• Unhealthy diet
Women who have had a history of pregnancy complications, such as gestational diabetes, preeclampsia and hypertension are also at increased risk of developing heart disease.
Diagnosing heart disease can begin with your primary care provider. Routine physicals and tests are an easy way to address any concerns or symptoms and check the status of your heart.
Lowering your risk
Heart disease is common and preventable. Taking small steps and implementing lifestyle changes can lower your risk of developing heart disease or catching it early. It’s important to lower stress, eat a balanced diet, get regular exercise and undergo routine screenings. Salazar said that one key to improving your heart health is making small changes to your lifestyle, which are easier to stick with than larger changes.
• Stress: Stress can increase strain on your heart by causing elevated heart rate and blood pressure. Whether it’s emotional or work-related, all types of stress can cause symptoms that affect your quality of life. The best way to reduce stress on the heart is to make sure you are getting enough sleep, exercise and water and eating a balanced diet.
“We know that what we eat or drink and how much sleep or exercise we get can lower blood pressure and heart rate,” Salazar said. “Stress can manifest due to a lot of different things or reasons, and taking care of our body can allow us to eliminate or determine the root cause. Sometimes you can’t resolve stress through lifestyle changes, and that is OK. In those cases, that is when intervention from your primary care provider or a mental health provider is needed.”
• Diet: Eating a balanced diet is a key factor in lowering your risks. Your intake of saturated fats, sodium, alcohol and many other dietary factors can increase your chances of developing heart disease. Excess saturated fats can increase your body’s cholesterol, and excess sodium can raise your blood pressure. The key to a balanced diet is moderation. Eating a heart-healthy diet does not mean you can’t have the treats or meals you love. Making simple swaps, such as eating whole-grain bread or pasta or adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet, is a great place to start.
“Change can be hard, especially when it comes to diet,” Salazar said. “Your primary care provider can help you identify what changes would benefit your health and how to implement them.”
• Exercise: Exercise is like strength training for your heart. It allows your body to increase blood flow and helps your heart work better and stronger. To strengthen your heart, it is recommended that you do 30 minutes of moderate activity daily or 150 minutes weekly.
“Moderate exercise can be any exercise where you can talk but maintain an elevated heart rate,” Salazar said. “For someone who has a high level of activity, walking may not be enough. They may need to walk faster, jog or run. Other great moderate exercises would be biking and swimming.”
What can I do today?
Everyone’s heart is different, and it is important to have your heart tested each year. Routine bloodwork can assess risk factors for heart disease before symptoms appear by analyzing your cells and platelet count, as well as the other chemical factors of your blood.
No matter your age, it is important to care for your heart. Salazar said heart disease occurs over a period of time, and when caught early enough, it can be successfully managed or repaired. Working closely with your primary care provider to routinely screen and monitor your heart health and combining that with lifestyle changes is the best way to lower your risk.
“Women, regardless of age, should screen for risk factors related to heart disease,” Salazar said.
— Kade Han is the social media and digital communications specialist at LMH Health.