Cardiovascular Disease (example: Heart attacks) is the number one cause of death for women in the U.S, causing 1 out of 3 deaths each years. That is approximately one women every minute. By now we are all familiar with the standard markers of a heart attack, but those symptoms vary based on gender. Women have vastly different signs and it is imperative that we are aware of these indicators.
This really hit home a few years back when my next door neighbor, Carol, had the flu. At the time Carol lived directly across the sidewalk, so I was used to seeing her come and go every day to work. I hadn’t seen her for 2 days, when an ambulance pulled up and took her away on the gurney. Flummoxed, I went over and spoke with her daughter. Turns out Carol, 51, a full time school teacher, suffered a massive heart attack 2 days earlier. Her symptoms were stomach flu, weakness and joint pain. She thought she had the normal flu, stayed home to wait it out. However by day 2 her symptoms got worse, including shortness of breath. By the end of the day she called her daughter, who came over and immediately called the paramedics.
Turns out that she had a heart attack, didn’t realize it, stayed home for 2 days, accruing more damage. What made this impactful to me was the damage was irreparable. Carol was unable to go back to work. She lost her job, and she lost her condo. She now lives with her daughter to help take care of her. Had Carol been aware of the symptoms of a heart attack for women, it made have changed her response, and changed her life!
Women mistakenly attribute heart disease symptoms to arthritis or musculoskeletal problems, anxiety, or emotional upset. Women may also ignore their symptoms because from an early age we have learned to bear pain from menstrual cramps, pregnancy and childbirth. As a result we tend to deal with pain or discomfort with little or no complaint, much longer than a man would. As we saw with Carol, ignoring her symptoms was devastating.
The signs and symptoms of a heart attack vary based on gender. But some common early warning signs are shortness of breath and sudden fatigue. Angina, which is called a heart cramp, is more often in women a dull, aching discomfort frequently beneath the breastbone rather than sharp, crushing pain more common in men. Women don’t show textbook symptoms, instead they may suffer from indigestion or GI fullness. Abdominal discomfort or nausea and vomiting is another pattern for women as well as dizziness, unexplained lightheadedness, or even blackouts could be symptoms of an impending heart attack. Other traditional symptoms of heart attack in women include; chest pain or pressure, back discomfort, pain or tingling of jaw, elbow or arm, threat tightness, indigestion, disproportionate sweating with activity.
Data from landmark Framingham investigations suggested that overall women have a higher incidence for a silent heart attack. Many women can recollect a day they did have a symptom, but they failed to attribute that symptom to a problem with their heart – usually because it was vague, mild, or atypical.
No one is completely immune to heart disease, however this is probably the disease over which we have the most control, especially in terms of prevention. A healthy respect for your cardiovascular system can be a springboard to a whole new level of health, vitality, and longevity. With proper nutrition, lifestyle changes, exercise, we are able to prevent and recover from heart disease. Prevention before intervention.
Top preventive tips for women:
1. Change your diet
There is no question about it, you are what you eat. Fruits and vegetables should be the main stay of your diet, along with whole grains, healthy fats and lean protein. The Mediterranean or the Anti-inflammatory diet are great, and you will be doing your heart a big favor modifying your nutritional habits.
The evil twin of obesity is a sedentary lifestyle. The two often go hand in hand. Research has validated the positive effects of exercise on health. You don’t have to become an elite athlete to reap the benefits. Start small and easy with activities, consult an expert, and realize that’s easier than you think to begin an exercise program.
3. Manage your stress
A high-risk lifestyle is now considered a risk factor for heart disease. Stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol can weaken your cardiovascular system. Try restorative yoga or meditation to manage your stress.
4. Stop smoking
Smokers die from heart disease almost three times more often than they die from lung cancer. Smokers have twice the risk of heart attack as non-smokers. Smokers are also more likely to experience sudden cardiac death. Get in a program, seek professional help and guidance, to quit smoking.
5. Lose weight
Being overweight holds a greater heart disease risk for women than it does for men. An eight year study from Harvard Medical School found that among obese women, up to 70% of their coronary artery disease was the result of being overweight. You are considered obese if you weigh 20-30% more than your ideal weight. This means that if your ideal weight is 125lbs and you are 25 pounds overweight, you are considered obese. Women tend to be more overweight than men, which raises the risk of heart disease.
6. Get your blood pressure checked
High blood pressure or hypertension is more common in men early in life, but after the age of 55, more women than men develop it. In the US, an estimated fifty million adults suffer from hypertension. High blood pressure is a major cause of heart attack, stroke, and congestive heart failure. Normal blood pressure should be less than 130/less than 80. Borderline BP 140/90. High BP is more than 150/95.
7. Get your cholesterol checked
Higher than normal level of cholesterol in the bloodstream is a risk factor for heart disease. The two most important types when it comes to heart disease are known as Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL) and High Density Lipoprotein (HDL). You want a low LDL and a high HDL, so together they work together to constitute healthy cholesterol levels.
Total Cholesterol (MG/DL)
Desirable less than 200.
Borderline 201 – 239.
High more than 240
LDL (bad) Cholesterol
Desirable less than 130
Borderline 130 – 159
High more than 160
HDL (good) Cholesterol
Very Protective more than 90
Protective more than 50
Moderate risk 36 – 49
High risk less than 35
8. Get you blood sugar checked for Diabetes
Cardiovascular disease is a major complication of diabetes. The cardiovascular effects of diabetes occur more frequently in women. Twelve million Americans are afflicted with diabetes, and another twenty-five million are at risk of developing this condition. All diabetics have a higher than normal risk for heart disease, and for women their risk is three to seven times higher than non-diabetic women, in contrast to men who face a death rate of two to three times higher than non-diabetic men. Diabetes is a powerful risk factor, so take control of a with exercise and dietary habits.
9. Family History
Genetics has long been implicated in heart disease, and the more first and second generation blood relatives you have with heart disease, the higher your own risk will be. Families have more than just genetics, they share beliefs, attitudes, habits, and behaviors. (example: having a parent who smokes, drink excess alcohol or eat fried foods). This can either protect you from developing heart disease or predispose you to increased risk. It is still possible to modify your genetic predisposition, it begins with incorporating healthy lifestyles and choices.
With this information women can be more engaged in their own health and their heart health. By sharing the personal story of my neighbor Carol, I hope that women will take this knowledge and insight to rebalance their lives. Every woman, if armed with the right information, can make her own choices in her health care, and her heart care.
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