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Ladies: Heart Disease is Not Just a Man's Disease

February 11, 2015

Heart disease is the #1 killer of women and is more fatal than all forms of cancer combined.

Despite that alarming fact, only about half of all women believe that heart disease is their greatest health threat. That percentage is even lower amongst African American and Hispanic women, at about two in five, as well as Asian women, at one in three.

These statistics may be jarring, but for many women it’s a necessary wake-up call that heart disease isn’t just relegated to men.

We often hear about heart attacks in men or buy into the well-worn image of a wife nagging her husband about what he eats, imploring him to put down the pizza and fries in favor of foods that aren’t filled with cholesterol, fat and sodium.

But women should heed that advice, too. According to the American Heart Association, heart disease affects 43 million women in the U.S. every year.

Heart disease symptoms in women can differ from those in men, which may account for why some people don’t understand their risks. Although chest pain is still the main symptom in women presenting with a heart attack, women more often than men can present with shortness of breath, fatigue, weakness, abdominal pain, and neck and back pain.

February is American Heart Month, the perfect time to learn more about heart health and what you can do to stay well.

Heart Disease Risks in Women

Several things can increase your risk for heart disease, including high LDL cholesterol, smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes and being overweight.

Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found in the blood and the cells. There are two types of cholesterol: LDL or “bad” cholesterol, which sticks to your blood vessels and arteries, and HDL or “good” cholesterol, which prevents clogging in the arteries. Cholesterol is most dangerous when it builds in the inner wall of your arteries, hardens and turns into plaque, causing blockages that can lead to a stroke, heart attack or a blood clot.

High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure puts a strain on your heart because it forces the heart to work harder to pump blood throughout the body. Women have a greater risk of developing high blood pressure if they have reached menopause, have a family history or are 20 pounds or more overweight.

Smoking, Weight & Diabetes

Smoking increases your risk for several health issues, especially heart disease. People who smoke can be four times as likely to suffer from heart disease or stroke, according to the American Heart Association. Smoking reduces the amount of oxygen your heart gets. Nicotine also increases your heart rate and blood pressure, damages your blood vessels and increases your risk for a blood clot. This risk factor is even more pronounced in women who smoke, as they have a 25 percent higher chance of developing heart disease compared to their male counterparts.

People with diabetes are twice as likely to experience a heart attack or stroke. Diabetes causes high blood glucose levels and damages nerves and blood vessels. Heart disease actually is the leading cause of death among people with diabetes.

Excess weight also is a risk factor for heart disease because people who are overweight or obese are more likely to have high cholesterol, high sugar or high blood pressure. If you have a higher amount of fat in your blood, you may be more likely to develop a clot, which can block blood flow to your heart. Excess weight around the stomach especially is concerning because it produces hormones and inflammatory substances that make their way into the liver and muscles, causing imbalances in the body that also can affect your heart.

Ways to Stay Healthy

Diabetes, high blood pressure and excess weight are significant risk factors for heart disease, but you can reduce your risk by eating a healthy diet and increasing your physical activity. Moderate exercise, which includes walking at a brisk pace, for 30 minutes at least five times a week is good for your heart. You also should increase your consumption of heart-healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, olive oil, whole grains and low-fat sources of protein like lean meats and beans. Some health experts even suggest sticking to a Mediterranean diet, which is rich in these foods. And don’t forget to bake your meals rather than fry them, as fried foods typically contain too many trans and saturated fats. Also, if you smoke, make every effort to quit—or at the very least reduce the amount you regularly consume.

Prevention is key when it comes to staying healthy. Heart disease isn’t something you can ignore, so take steps to stop it before it becomes so serious that it puts your health at risk. Yes, February is American Heart Month, but you should focus on your heart health every day of the year.

Ladies, don’t turn a blind eye to your heart health. It’s just as critical to you as it is to the men in your life. Start taking it seriously today.

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