Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., killing more women and men than all forms of cancer combined. Yet many women don't recognize they may be at risk, in part because the symptoms of cardiovascular disease and heart attack they may experience are often different from those that strike men.
In fact, more than 1 in 3 women with the life-threatening heart condition known as acute coronary syndrome don't experience the classic symptoms of crushing chest pain that men do. As a result, women face far greater risks of being misdiagnosed or even suffering a "silent" heart attack that goes unnoticed by their doctors or hospital healthcare professionals, experts say.
Dr. Erika Schwartz, a leading advocate of disease prevention and wellness, tells Newsmax Health that women need to be proactive about heart disease and be on the lookout for signs that they may be at risk — and not simply rely on their doctors or healthcare providers to do the job for them. She also argues that the widespread fear of cancer — and misconceptions that heart disease is primarily a "man's disease" — are two reasons why many women may underestimate their cardiovascular risks.
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"There are more men and women that die of heart disease — it's the No. 1 killer in the United States — and [yet] we are all afraid of getting cancer," says Dr. Schwartz, Dr. Erika's Healthy Balance
"It is such a sad state of affairs that, to this day, in 2014, we still don't diagnose women and we don't take them seriously when they come into an emergency room with chest pain, and doctors don’t k now how to distinguish between them [and men]."
She recalls a patient in her 60s who died after repeatedly going to a hospital emergency room with chest pain — but was sent home because the doctors there did not recognize the signs that she had cardiovascular disease.
"This woman was sent home three times and she died of heart disease," Dr. Schwartz says. "She had a heart attack and died … It broke my heart. It's a horrible thing because it's not the first patient I’ve lost that way."
Research shows that up to five times as many women die from heart disease than breast cancer. A recent Ohio State University study published in Global Heart, the journal of the World Heart Federation, found that awareness of women's risks of developing coronary artery disease (CAD) has increased over the past decade, but men are still more aggressively treated at the first signs of the heart condition.
The research indicates CAD kills at least as many women as men each year, but doctors are less likely to recommend preventive measures for women, compared to men at risk for the condition — such as lowering cholesterol, taking aspirin, or making lifestyle changes in their dietary and exercise habits.
Lead researchers Martha Gulati, M.D., and Kavita Sharma, M.D., argued that doctors need to do a better job of recognizing — and treating — heart disease in women.
"One in three women get heart disease; one in two get heart disease or stroke, and one in eight get breast cancer," Dr. Gulati tells Newsmax Health. "One in four women die from heart disease and one in 30 women die from breast cancer. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women. Lack of awareness is a [factor]."
Cardiovascular diseases kill 8.6 million women worldwide each year. That's one-third of all deaths in women. According to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease — including heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke — kills nearly a half-million women in the U.S. annually. That figure exceeds the next seven causes of death combined.
More women die from CAD than of all cancers (including breast cancer, which kills about 40,000 women annually), respiratory conditions, Alzheimer's disease, and accidents. Women are also 15 percent more likely than men to die of a heart attack and twice as likely to have a second heart attack in the six years following the first.
But while most American women can identify breast cancer as a risk to their health, few can do the same for heart disease, surveys show.
Dr. Gulati, a cardiologist author of the book Saving Women’s Hearts: How You Can Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease With Natural and Conventional Strategies
, notes symptoms of heart disease in women can include milder chest pain than men experience.
But many women may merely feel nauseated or like they have the flu. Women may also feel anxiety, heartburn, dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath, or dull aches in their arms, jaws, teeth, or backs instead of the more severe painful symptoms men experience.
Dr. Schwartz notes that most of the research on heart disease has involved men and not women and that treatments have been largely designed for men.
"I don't think that physicians are really trained" to recognize heart disease in women, she adds. "I think they're getting better. But I have to tell you that most physicians [dismiss] women's problems as being in their heads, or being menopausal or, 'Forget it, honey, you’re getting older.' And I find that actually offensive, representing women and being a physician and listening to women every day."
She advocates that women take charge their own health, and recognize the potential risks they face — and take steps to reduce them.
"You the patient knows best," she says. "It's your life and you have to take responsibility for being heard and knowing what's good for you … and [taking] care of yourself. The first thing to do to protect yourself is to understand that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women. And if you understand that then the second step is to educate yourself about what are the signs and symptoms of heart disease in women."
She also recommends adopting heart-healthy habits to head off cardiovascular problems. Among them:
Diet: Consume at least five daily servings of fruit and vegetables; limit consumption of fried and fatty foods; buy lean, low-fat protein; and choose lower-fat and whole grain foods.
Exercise: Get at least 20-30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise five days a week (150 minutes weekly). That activity should be strenuous enough to increase your heart rate and make you break a sweat, but light enough that you can carry on a conversation.
Look for ways to lower your stress level through exercise, relaxation techniques, Yoga, swimming, or other activities.
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