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Understanding Heart Disease in Women

Heart disease is often thought of as a disease that mainly affects men. However, it is well documented that heart disease, also known as cardiovascular disease, is a leading cause of death for women in the United States.

Heart disease can be an umbrella term for many conditions that affect the heart and blood vessels, including coronary artery disease, rhythm, and heart failure. Because heart disease affects women differently than men, the symptoms can often be misunderstood, making heart disease dangerous for women.

Many women don’t have any symptoms of heart disease until they have a serious medical emergency, such as a heart attack. However, early symptoms of heart disease include:

  • Chest pain or discomfort that can be either sharp or dull and heavy
  • Pain in your neck, jaw, or throat
  • Pain in your upper abdomen
  • Upper back pain
  • Nausea
  • Unusual fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • General weakness
  • Changes in skin color, such as grayish skin
  • Sweating

These symptoms may occur while either at rest or during activities of daily life. These can also be the symptoms of a heart attack. Like heart disease, the symptoms of heart attacks differ between men and women, leading women not always to be able to properly recognize what is gradually happening. This misunderstanding can lead to women needing more time to get the care they urgently need. Some of the most common heart attack symptoms for women include:

  • Chest pain that feels like tightness or pressure instead of the more severe chest pain
  • Extreme or unusual fatigue may feel like you’re coming down with the flu
  • Throat and jaw pain, many times without any chest pain
  • Pain or discomfort in the upper
  • Pain, discomfort, or a tingling sensation in one or both arms
  • Upper back pain
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Nausea and vomiting

Instead of giving heart-shaped candies or cherry-filled chocolates to your loved ones this Valentine’s Day, gift them the peace of mind that your heart will keep you around for a long time to come. What’s the best way to ensure your heart is functioning properly? It’s never too early to contact a doctor to discuss your risk of heart disease.

If you have a family history of heart disease, you are at a higher rate of developing the disease.

However, there are lifestyle changes you can make to keep your heart pumping and working correctly, for both men and women. Like with any new habit, the biggest thing to remember is to stay consistent. Pick one small step and do it every single day for a few weeks before trying to adopt a new lifestyle habit into your day-to-day routine. Below are four lifestyle habits to incorporate if you are trying to improve your heart health:

Watch What You Eat. Maintain a diet that focuses on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, poultry, fish, and nuts. If you eat mainly eat saturated and trans fat foods, learn to enjoy them in moderation. What does that mean? Saturated fats occur naturally in meat and dairy products, primarily beef, pork, chicken, butter, cream, and cheese. While it may be hard for a Wisconsinite to cut down on cheese intake, it may help to lower cholesterol. Trans fats raise bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower good (HDL) levels and can be found in many commercially fried and baked foods like pastries, pizza dough, cookies, and crackers.

Find Alternatives to Alcohol. Drinking in excess increases your risk for high blood pressure, obesity, stroke, and heart disease. If you consider yourself a drinker, enjoying your favorite beverages in moderation may help your heart. For women, drinking in moderation is one drink a day and one to two a day for men. And “one drink” may be a smaller proportion than you think. In general, a drink is one 12-ounce regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard alcohol.

Finally Quit. If you’re a smoker, it’s imperative finally kick the habit for your heart. The American Heart Association reports that for all cardiovascular disease-related deaths in the United States, 20% are due to cigarette smoking. Smoking and secondhand smoke can permanently damage your heart.

Schedule an Appointment. If you haven’t seen your primary doctor in a while, now is the time to plan an appointment. Scheduling a visit with your primary care physician can help you better understand if you are at risk for heart disease. They can test you for the above blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, and BMI levels.

If you didn’t know, February is Heart Health Awareness Month, a dedicated time to understand your heart better, how it impacts your overall health, and how you can improve it. What’s a better way to spread awareness than scheduling an appointment with your primary care physician to understand your number better? After your appointment, talk to your friends and family! Share what you learned and how you’re planning on improving your heart health. Adapting new lifestyle habits like changing your diet or incorporating exercise into your day is easier with support.

While it’s great to talk about heart health during this time, you should be working towards bettering your heart all year long. If you have questions about your heart health, don’t hesitate to get in touch with your primary care physician. At Southwest Health, cardiologist Dr. Eugene Kaji is available for direct care for patients with heart and cardiovascular concerns with or without a referral. Southwest Health is proud to have cardiology available for all patients.