Heart Disease In Women - Know Your Risk
Barbara at home in her living room,
planning a trip.
When asked to name family members affected by heart disease, most people
think of Uncle John, Cousin Bob or possibly their own father. A common
belief is that heart disease only affects men--perhaps because men are
diagnosed with heart disease roughly 10 years before most women. A
recent study showed that only 13 percent of women considered heart
disease to be their greatest health risk. In fact, women are six times
more likely to die of heart disease than of breast cancer, reports Karen
Buri, a registered nurse with North Kansas City Hospital's Cardiac
Rehab Program. "We see women in their early forties affected by heart
Health professionals now believe that coronary artery
disease (CAD) can begin early in life with inflammation of the delicate
lining of arterial walls. This process leads to the development of
plaque. Because women have small blood vessels, even a minimal amount of
plaque can cause a blockage or lead to a heart attack.
risk factors greatly increase a woman's chance of this inflammatory
process and the development of CAD:
- After menopause the cardio-protective effect of natural female
hormones is lost. In addition, aging leads to increased bad cholesterol
(LDL), decreased good cholesterol (HDL), changes in blood vessel walls,
and increased fibrinogen levels (a substance that causes blood to clot).
- Smoking just one to four cigarettes a day doubles a woman's
chance of having a heart attack. Exposure to second-hand smoke as a
child also can begin this inflammatory process.
- Women with diabetes have lower HDL cholesterol, are usually overweight and have a greater risk for developing blood clots.
- Abdominal obesity (a waist circumference of 35 inches or more)
is associated with higher triglycerides, higher LDL cholesterol, lower
HDL cholesterol and a greater risk of diabetes.
- Physical inactivity contributes to high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity.
- Chronic stress increases blood pressure. The stress hormone
cortisol damages blood vessels, increases cholesterol levels and leads
Symptoms that occur
for weeks or months before a heart attack include:
- Unusual fatigue
- Sleep disturbance
- Shortness of breath
- Chest discomfort
- Pain in the upper back
Women often describe their chest
symptoms as pressure, tightness or an ache rather than pain. Many heart
attack patients, especially women, wait two hours or more after their
symptoms begin to seek medical help which delays lifesaving procedures.
At 63 years of age, Barbara Willt has dealt with heart disease for several
years, initially through stents placed to open her arteries and most
recently with bypass surgery. She encourages women to see their doctor
if they don't feel well. "Don't ignore any symptoms," she says. "My
symptoms of throat and jaw discomfort weren't typical, but together with
shortness of breath and arm pain, I knew something was wrong."
good news is that even if a woman has a family history, there is a
great deal that can be done to prevent heart disease. The Cardiac Rehab
Team at North Kansas City Hospital encourages everyone to stop all forms
of tobacco, avoid second-hand smoke, exercise daily, monitor blood
pressure levels and know lipid profile results. By making their own
health a priority, women can better meet the demands of their busy