It’s a scenario too many women are familiar with.
There’s the to-do list that seems to get longer every day. Waking up in the middle of the night to check cell phone messages. Skipping workouts because there’s just not enough time in a day.
And when a woman’s heart starts to feel a tad different with every beat (even occasionally) or they can’t get rid of that annoying little tingle in their arm, too often a woman will find an excuse not to see a doctor about it.
What they seldom consider is that it might be the beginning of heart disease. And for millions of women, that’s exactly what it is.
“Women are pulled in so many directions that they simply don’t take care of their own health,” explains Dr. Marion Hofmann Bowman, associate professor of medicine, Section of Cardiology at The University of Chicago Medicine & Biological Sciences. “From stress to sleep deprivation to a sedentary lifestyle, women are especially susceptible to developing heart disease in their lifetime.”
In fact, the American Heart Association states that one in three adult women are living with some form of cardiovascular disease and may or may not realize it. The disease remains the number one killer of women in the U.S.
“Routine evaluations are needed, simply to be able to check things like cholesterol and blood pressure,” says Hofmann Bowman. “Heart disease is detectable and tests are available to ensure that no woman leaves their doctor’s office not knowing what they are dealing with in terms of their heart health.”
But like everything, there are signs (some very early ones) — if you are paying attention to your body.
“Women need to pay attention to things like tightness in their chest or any feeling in their heart that feels different and is not going away,” explains Dr. Annabelle Volgman, medical director of the Heart Center for Women at Rush University Medical Center. “The good thing about women is they have an amazing intuition. They simply have to listen to what their body is telling them and make sure that they are their own advocate for their own health.” And it’s important to note that women can experience a heart attack without any chest discomfort or pain.
The risk factors are many — smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity all can point towards a future heart disease diagnosis. And yes, it can happen to anyone, no matter what the age.
“I have seen women in their 50s and 60s with symptoms of heart disease and I have seen women in their 20s with heart palpitations or having heart attacks,” explains Volgman. “No matter the age, you need to pay close attention to your family history. You might look healthy and not look like someone who would have to deal with something like heart disease, but you always have to know your risk.”
And for minorities, and especially women of color, the early stages of heart disease are often hereditary.
“Genetics can make African-American women much more salt-sensitive, which ultimately results in obesity and diabetes later in life,” remarks Volgman. “Yes, there are lots of medications and a lifestyle that can lower the blood pressure. With that in mind, they need to eat less salt, keep their weight down and treat with medications if needed.”
Indeed, a common lag in treating heart disease often results in the disease either not being diagnosed in time or simply not treated properly.
“It’s gotten better, but there was a time when we would see a number of women end up in the ER because they simply couldn’t afford to take their blood pressure medicine,” says Hofmann. “We also see many of these women not take their medicine properly because of the side effects they might experience.”
Medicines to combat heart disease have certainly advanced through the years, with doctors agreeing that they must be taken properly in order for them to work to their full potential. And luckily there are many steps a woman can take to not only prevent heart disease, but also combat it once it evolves.
“The good thing is that you have lots of control over the health of your heart,” explains Chicago nutritionist Dawn Jackson Blatner, who often cites “Four Fs” for women to use as a guide when attempting to combat heart disease:
Fitness: “Anything is better than nothing. You don’t have to do an hour a day. You just have to do something every day. Consistency is key.”
Fluids: “Drinking water instead of sugary drinks is so very important.”
Fiber: “Fiber cleans out one’s body and serves as a sponge to keep your system clean. Whole grains, lentils, fruits and vegetables are all good sources of fiber.”
Fat (good fat): “So many people are still living under that 80’s mentality of fat free is always the best way to go. But it isn’t. There are plenty of good fats such as olive oil that actually make your heart healthier.”
Even the choice of foods in which you consume can have a direct effect on your chances to have heart disease later in life. Many medical professionals and nutritionists say it’s always a good idea to add foods such as tomatoes, walnuts, garlic, and even something as satisfying as dark chocolate (in moderation).
Do You Know Your Numbers? Doctors suggest that women (and men, too) should be aware of the following markers, which your doctor or cardiologist can easily assess for you through routine tests:
— Total cholesterol
— HDL or “good” cholesterol level
— LDL or “bad” cholesterol level
— Triglyceride level
— Blood pressure
— Blood sugar
— Body mass index
According to the American Heart Association, the following are common heart attack signs in women and it recommends you call 9-1-1- or head to an ER immediately:
— Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
— Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
— Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
— Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.
For more information on heart disease in women and men, visit heart.org.
Tricia Despres is a local freelance writer.