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When the American Heart Association polled women about what they were most likely to die from, 60 percent said breast cancer, while only 18 percent believed they would die from heart disease. In reality, cardiovascular/heart disease kills more women than all forms of cancer combined and yet only 44% of women recognize that cardiovascular disease is their greatest health threat. (Source: American Heart Association)
“Most men know that heart disease is their number one killer. But for women, there’s a misconception about how prevalent it is,” says Najam Ansari, MD, interventional cardiologist for the TriHealth Heart & Vascular Institute.
And the startling truth is that the vast majority of deaths from heart disease, heart attacks and stroke could be prevented by lowering certain risk factors. So, what is keeping women from taking care of their hearts?
“Women wear many hats, often looking after their families’ health, their careers, school and activities,” Dr. Ansari says. “They don’t always make time for their own health. As doctors, we want to encourage them to take time for themselves as a total person.”
“Estrogen will protect me.” This is true, but only until menopause, which occurs around age 40 or 50. And hormone replacement therapy has been disproven to safeguard the cardiovascular health of post-menopausal women.
“I don’t have crushing chest pain, so it can’t be a heart attack.” It’s been firmly established that women experience signs of heart attack differently than men. The classic symptoms of heaviness in the chest and pain radiating to the jaw or down the left arm may or may not happen for women. Dr. Ansari says it’s more likely that they’ll have no warning signs or that heart attack pain will show up as shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, fatigue or indigestion. Knowing your risk for heart disease may help you know when to take action.
Women are at higher risk for stroke than men. They also are more inclined to have certain health conditions that can have a negative impact on your cardiovascular health — anxiety and depression, and autoimmune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
Pregnancy complications, including preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, high blood pressure and congenital heart disease, also can be harmful to your heart.
Plus, certain types of chemotherapy for breast cancer have been found to cause heart damage. Dr. Ansari notes, “There’s a burgeoning field of medicine called cardio-oncology that looks at how cancer treatments are affecting the heart.” Experts are looking at ways to assess and minimize risk.
The American Heart Association and other organizations have raised awareness about the need to address heart disease in women. Cardiology fellowships have made it part of their training.
“You don’t have to be a woman cardiologist to be interested in women and heart disease — I have three girls who will grow up to be women,” Dr. Ansari says. “We have blood tests and imaging tests that can help us clarify if a woman is at higher or lower risk for heart disease.”
Since risk factors like age and family history can’t be changed, it’s important to identify the factors you can control.
Dr. Ansari encourages you to find a doctor who can help you assess your risk for heart disease and work to prevent:
“If we can get these right and focus on a foundation of eating well, exercising and not smoking, we can make a difference.”
Dr. Ansari continues, “As a community of doctors and health providers, we’re trying to prevent that first event from happening. If you have vague symptoms you’re concerned about, pay attention to your instincts and get them checked out.”