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Women and heart disease: Know your body, get educated

February 02, 2018

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“It’s a man’s disease.”

“I’m too young.”

“Breast cancer is the real threat.”

If you have heard or said any of these statements, you’re not alone. But relying on these kinds of assumptions can cost you your life, so says the American Heart Association.

February is American Heart Month, and on Feb. 2, Americans were asked to wear red for National Wear Red Day and to donate to Go Red for Women, to help fund research for heart disease. Why go red? Cardiovascular disease in the U.S. kills approximately one woman every 80 seconds.

The good news is that 80 percent of cardiac events may be prevented with education and lifestyle changes. The bad news is that there are myths out there that many women have bought into.

Myth: Heart disease is for men; cancer is the real threat for women. The fact is that heart disease is a killer that strikes more women than men, and is more deadly than all forms of cancer combined. While one in 31 women dies from breast cancer each year, heart disease is the cause for one out of every three deaths — about one death each minute.

Myth: Heart disease is for old people. The fact is that heart disease affects people of all ages. For younger women, using birth control pills and smoking can boost the risk of heart disease by 20 percent. Overeating and a sedentary lifestyle can lead to clogged arteries later in life. Even the most health person can have an underlying risk factor for heart disease, so it’s important to see your doctor.

Myth: Heart disease doesn’t affect women who are physically fit.  No matter how fit you may be, the risk of heart disease isn’t completely eliminated. Having high cholesterol, bad eating habits and smoking can all but cancel out your healthier habits. All adults should have their cholesterol checked at age 20, or even earlier, if there is a family history of heart disease. You should also watch your blood pressure.

Myth: I don’t have any symptoms, so I’m fine. More than 60 percent of women who die suddenly of a heart attack had no previous symptoms. Hollywood has conditioned us to believe that a heart attack is a sudden, acute chest pain that involves gripping your left arm. For women, it’s more likely to be shortness of breath, nausea and/or vomiting, and back or jaw pain. Other symptoms include dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting, pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen, and extreme fatigue.

Myth: Heart disease runs in my family. I’m doomed. You can dramatically reduce your risk of heart disease by making lifestyle changes.

What causes heart disease? Heart disease affects the blood vessels and your cardiovascular system. This can create numerous problems, many of which are related to atherosclerosis, which is when plaque builds up on the walls of the arteries. This buildup narrows the arteries, making it harder for blood to flow. If a blood clot forms, it can stop the blood flow. This can cause a heart attack or stroke.

Heart disease can also come in the form of heart failure or congestive heart failure, which is when the heart is still working, but isn’t pumping blood as well as it should, or getting a sufficient amount of oxygen. Arrhythmia or an abnormal rhythm of the heart, meaning the heart beats too fast or too slow, or even irregularly, can affect how well the heart is functioning and whether it can pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs. Heart valve problems can lead to the heart not opening up enough to allow proper blood flow.

There are many things that can put you at risk for any of these problems — the key is to get educated and treated.

Jenny Janney, physician assistant at Statesboro Cardiology, says women must make it a priority to get themselves checked out by their doctor if they have any symptoms or are concerned.

“Risk factors, as far as the things you can’t change, are things like family history and your age. Women over the age of 55 are at high risk. Other factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, obesity, diet, physical inactivity and also menopause. When your estrogen levels go down, that puts you at higher risk. A lot of women have more mental stress and depression, and this is also a risk factor,” she said.

Janney encourages women to take steps to maintain a healthy lifestyle to avoid heart issues. These include a heart healthy diet, focused on fresh fruits and vegetables and lean meats, cutting out fried and fatty foods, cutting down on or eliminating sugar, blood pressure control, and ceasing smoking. She also says it is important to get aerobic exercise every day, and if you are taking medications for diabetes or high blood pressure, take your medications as prescribed.

She also says that women who have a family history of heart issues should visit their doctor to be evaluated and to set a baseline for their own heart health.

“The biggest thing for women is to be more aware of your body, because symptoms in women can be more vague,” she said.



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