Internal Medicine

Women: Know your risk of heart disease

Which causes the most deaths among women: cardiovascular disease, breast cancer or lung cancer?

The answer – by far – is cardiovascular disease. In fact, cardiovascular disease kills about twice as many women as all forms of cancer combined. About one of every three adult women has some form of cardiovascular disease and more women than men die from heart disease, stroke or other cardiovascular diseases. Among those who survive a heart attack, women are more likely to die within a year and are more likely to experience a second heart attack within six years. Perhaps the most frightening statistic is that more than 60 percent of the women who die suddenly from heart disease have no previous symptoms.

Annual campaigns like “Go Red” day have helped raise awareness about women and heart disease. A recent American Heart Association survey found that 57 percent of American women now know that heart disease is the leading cause of death among women. Another survey that same year, however, showed that only one out of three women felt they were personally at risk for heart disease even though more than 80 percent admitted to having one or more risk factors.

That’s a troubling statistic because it may indicate that the majority of women are not taking steps to limit their risk of heart disease.

Some risk factors for heart disease are beyond your ability to change. For example, if you are older than 50, or if you have a close family member who had a heart attack before age 65, then you have a higher risk of heart disease. Still, many other risk factors can be limited or eliminated just by making some lifestyle changes. Smoking leads the list of lifestyle choices that can cause heart disease. Smoking is a factor in more than half of the heart attacks that occur in women younger than 50, and women who smoke and take oral contraceptives face an increased risk of heart disease. Regardless of your age or the number of years you’ve smoked, your physician can help you find a way to quit.

You probably already know that diet and exercise are important for keeping a healthy heart. But did you know that inactive people may be nearly twice as likely to develop heart disease? Set a goal of 30 minutes of physical activity each day. Initially, you can even divide this into 10- minute “activity breaks” throughout the day. If you are overweight, work with your physician to find a diet plan that works for you. By limiting your calories and increasing your activity, you can achieve the slow, steady progress (two or fewer pounds per week) that will allow you to lose excess weight and keep it off.

If you don’t know your blood pressure or cholesterol level, it’s time to get them checked by your physician. For ideal cardiovascular health, blood pressure should be below 120/80, total cholesterol below 200, “good’ cholesterol (HDL) above 60 and “bad” cholesterol (LDL) below 100. If diet and exercise don’t get you to these goals, your physician can prescribe medications that will help.

Finally, be aware of your risk for diabetes. If you are overweight and have a family history of diabetes, make sure to ask your physician to test you for diabetes. Women with diabetes are two to four times more likely to die from heart disease than non-diabetic women.

Keep in mind, that being at risk for heart disease doesn’t make heart disease inevitable. Take the time to learn about your particular risk factors and talk to your physician about the steps you can take to make sure you live a long, heart-healthy life.

Originally published in The University Doctors' MedicaLink - 02/08

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