Heart disease? Most women worry more about their risk for breast cancer than they do developing heart disease or having a heart attack. In the minds of some, heart disease is more of a “man’s disease.” Read on and discover why ALL women need to be concerned about heart health and common myths about women and heart disease that too many people still believe.
Myth One: A Normal Cholesterol Means Your Risk for Heart Disease is Low
Cholesterol level is only one risk factor for heart disease. It’s not uncommon for women with a normal cholesterol level to have a heart attack. In fact, about half and three-quarters of all heart attacks occur in people with normal cholesterol. Other risk factors include high blood pressure, family history, a history of diabetes, high triglycerides and being past menopause.
One test that offers information about your risk for a heart attack is a calcium score, determined by a non-invasive CT scan. Your calcium score is a measure of how much plaque you have accumulated in your arteries. A higher number indicates a greater risk for a future heart attack. It’s a test that takes only about 15 minutes and exposes you to low doses of radiation – something to consider if you have risk factors for heart disease.
Myth Two: Women Have a Higher Risk for Breast Cancer than Heart Disease
Many women focus more on their risk of getting breast cancer than they do heart health. In reality, women have a 6 times greater risk of dying of heart problems relative to breast cancer. In fact, one in three women will ultimately die of heart disease. In contrast, the average woman has only a one in 7 chance of getting breast cancer over the course of a lifetime. According to the American Heart Association, heart disease is the number one killer of both women and men and is more deadly than all forms of cancer combined. That’s pretty sobering!
Myth Three: Chest Pain is the Cardinal Sign of a Heart Attack
Women are less likely to have “typical” symptoms of a heart attack, like chest pain, compared to men. Surprisingly, half of all women have no chest pain at all. Symptoms of a heart attack in women are often more subtle than in a man. Mild shortness of breath, dizziness, fatigue, jaw pain, back pain, sweating, indigestion or nausea are common symptoms females experience before or during a heart attack. Women have a poorer prognosis when they have a heart attack than men, probably because they don’t seek help quickly enough due to the more subtle nature of their symptoms.
Here’s another scary statistic – women are twice as likely as men to have a second heart attack within 6 years of having the first one. Be in tune with your body and if you experience these symptoms, get help as quickly as possible. Why take a chance?
Myth Four: You Don’t Have to Worry about Heart Disease until After Menopause
It’s true that a woman’s risk is lower prior to menopause, but a heart attack can happen at any age, particularly in women who smoke or have other risk factors like high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes or strong family history. Estrogen does offer some protection against heart disease due to its effect on blood vessel function and by increasing HDL- cholesterol, but heart attacks DO happen in women under 50, particularly smokers. Don’t assume you’re immune to heart problems because you’re young, especially if you have a strong family history.
Myth Five: Heart Attacks Come on Suddenly with No Warning Signs
Prior to a heart attack, women often experience vague symptoms of fatigue and uneasiness that they brush off or attribute to being tired or stressed out. One study of over 500 women found almost 71% of women who experienced a heart attack reported feeling fatigued for more than a month prior to the event. Some even felt flu-like symptoms. Take home message: Listen to what your body is telling you. If you’re experiencing symptoms that are unusual for you, don’t brush them off.
Myth Six: Heart Disease Isn’t Preventable
Sure, genetics are a factor, and if you have a strong family history of coronary artery disease or relatives who had a heart attack before age 55, you should be screened early with a coronary calcium scan and work with a health care provider to treat problems like high blood pressure, diabetes, and elevated lipids that place you at greater risk. Heart disease is a health problem that’s greatly influenced by lifestyle.
Even if you have a strong family history, you can lower your risk for coronary artery disease by exercising, not smoking, maintaining a healthy body weight, and eating a Mediterranean-style diet. Be sure to grab a handful of nuts each day! Research shows regular nut eaters are less likely to experience a heart-related disease or die of a heart attack. Lowering your risk for heart disease involves more than just limiting saturated fat in your diet. Brighten up your plate with colorful fruits, vegetables, and add moderate amounts of fiber-rich whole grains and nuts. Avoid processed foods and sugar since they can raise your triglyceride level and contribute to insulin resistance.
Don’t forget about the importance of exercise. Being sedentary is one of the top five risk factors for heart disease. Not only does physical activity improve cardiovascular fitness, but it also reduces other risk factors for heart disease, including high blood pressure, insulin resistance, obesity, low HDL-cholesterol, and high triglycerides. The take-home message? Get moving – consistently.
The Bottom Line
Heart disease, not breast cancer, is the most common killer of women. Be aware of your risk factors – and don’t believe these six myths.
Health. “Heart Attack Symptoms Every Woman Should Know”
Harvard School of Public Health. “Nuts for the Heart”
American Heart Association. “Heart Disease Statistics at a Glance”
Dr. Mark Hyman. “Why Cholesterol May Not Be the Cause Of Heart Disease”
American Heart Association. “Menopause and Heart Disease”
Circulation. 2003; 107: e2-e5 doi: 10.1161/01.CIR.0000048890.59383.8D.
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