It wasn’t too long ago that heart disease was viewed as a man’s problem. In fact, up until about 10 years ago virtually all studies on heart disease excluded women.
That was a big mistake because heart disease is the biggest killer of women in the U.S. Even with increased awareness, 80 percent of midlife women (ages 40 – 60) still have one or more of the modifiable risk factors for heart disease – high blood pressure, high cholesterol, overweight/obesity, physical inactivity, diabetes, and smoking.
Consider the following data:
While heart disease is significantly lower for young women than men, women quickly catch up and pass men once they reach menopause. Historically, women with such risk factors as high cholesterol or hypertension have not been treated as aggressively as their male counterparts. That practice is only recently beginning to change.
Women often don’t present with the classic symptoms of a heart attack. Many women, in fact, are asymptomatic, lacking such classic symptoms as chest pain; pain radiating to the shoulders, neck or arms; and shortness of breath. They present in a more vague fashion, such as with flu-like symptoms or fatigue. As a result, women may ignore the symptoms and not seek care from a physician because they don’t perceive they are at risk.
The link between diabetes and heart disease is even greater among women. Women have the same risk factors as men – hypertension, smoking, obesity, high cholesterol, family history. Yet, diabetes is a stronger risk factor for women than for men.
Women do not respond as well as well to treatment. Studies show that women who have had bypass surgery or been treated medically have a higher incident of recurrent heart failure and mortality. That’s why the push for prevention is particularly important for women.
Although women (and men) have no control over their family history, they can make meaningful lifestyle choices to stop smoking, start exercising, watch their diet, and keep their diabetes under control.