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Women and heart disease

February 1, 2016 Senior Health

Cardiovascular disease is the top killer of women. The majority of women have at least one risk factor for heart disease, but many do not realize it. Women also don't know about the sometimes subtle signals of a heart attack.

Why the disconnect? For years, women also thought hormone therapy (HT) would protect them from heart trouble. But heart attacks can and do occur at any age, and we now know that HT may actually increase the risk for heart disease.

A common form of heart disease is coronary artery disease, which affects the blood vessels of your heart. Heart disease also includes atherosclerosis, or the thickening and hardening of your arteries, as well as stroke and heart failure.

Risk factors

Risk factors for heart disease can be divided into those that suggest a major risk and those that lead to an increased risk. Major risk factors are high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, diabetes, obesity or being overweight, smoking, physical inactivity, heredity, and age. Factors that could lead to an increased risk include stress and excessive alcohol consumption—for women, that means more than one drink a day.

Women should know their blood pressure and cholesterol levels. One red flag is a high level of LDL ("bad") cholesterol, which clogs arteries, and a low level of HDL ("good") cholesterol, which clears arteries.

Knowing your risk factors is vital. Then you can set goals and work with your doctor to reach them.

Lifestyle changes

The following lifestyle modifications will put you on the path to a heart healthy life:

  • Reach and keep a healthy weight
  • De-stress daily
  • Move more and exercise
  • Quit smoking
  • Trim saturated fat and salt from your diet

Main Line Health offers classes, events and screenings that can help you make the lifestyle modifications you may need:

Heed these symptoms

If you have to sit down after you clear the dishes, a heart attack could be in your near future. Unshakable fatigue—tiredness that hampers activities—and sleeplessness appear to be early warning signs of a woman's heart attack. Other symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath (very common in women)
  • Pain that spreads to the shoulders, neck or arms
  • Nausea
  • Uncomfortable chest pressure

If you have these symptoms, especially if they last more than five minutes, call 911.

About the Women’s Heart Initiative

At the Lankenau Heart Institute, our cardiac experts understand the unique heart health needs of women and are proud to feature a team of eleven female cardiologists. From prevention and diagnosis to treatment and rehabilitation, when it comes to matters of the heart, a woman’s insight is irreplaceable.

The Women's Heart Initiative is a comprehensive health care program specifically dedicated to educating and raising awareness about women's heart care. The goal is to empower women to Learn, Act, Live—to help women recognize the warning signs of heart disease and encourage them to have open discussions with their physicians about their heart care.