Heart Health and Gender: Understanding Our Differences

UW Health cardiologist Dr. Annie Kelly explains the differences and similarities in women and men's heart healthMadison, Wisconsin - We've come a long way from the 1960s, when media messages read, "How Can I Help My Husband Cope with Heart Disease?"


In the last decade, national organizations like the American Heart Association, the National, Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and media have brought attention to heart disease in women, primarily because it was killing more women than anything else.


Unfortunately, heart disease and stroke combined are still the number one killer of women in the United States, so efforts to educate them continue. Yes, women still strive to help their husbands, fathers and loved ones cope with heart disease, but more importantly, they are learning to help themselves.


"More women and men have a greater understanding that heart disease does not discriminate between them," explains Dr. Annie Kelly, UW Health cardiologist, "but there are still differences as well as similarities in how they approach their heart health."


Our unique risk factors, how we handle stress and when we seek emergency help reflect just some of the differences in women's heart health.


Know What You Can Do


Keep important information - like emergency contacts and a list of your current medications - by your phone, or in your purse or wallet to help EMS providers or relatives in case of an emergency. Print a card (pdf)


And, know the symptoms and what you can do if you suspect a heart attack

Man or Woman: Call – Don’t Drive!


Dr. Kelly says it's important to understand that men and women both may experience typical or atypical heart attack symptoms but a difference lies in the time it takes them to get themselves to the emergency room.


Studies show that there is a greater delay in the time it takes women with heart attack symptoms to go to the emergency department (ED), versus the time it takes men. Dr. Kelly believes this is due in part to the fact that women are focused on taking care of others or are in denial, whereas men are more conditioned to think if they don’t feel well, it might be a heart attack.


But if you suspect that you or a loved one are having a heart attack, one of the most critical things you can do is to call 911. Don't drive yourself to the ED. Calling 911 brings emergency personnel to you where they can begin life-saving treatment. Your local EMS providers know the steps to take to get you the care you need - quickly. Emergency response teams can also alert the hospital so the appropriate medical team will be prepared for your arrival. Simply put, time saved is heart muscle saved. So the faster you get care, the healthier your heart will be in recovery.


Stress and Gender: The Differences in Coping


How you handle stressful situations or deal with chronic stress can impact your well-being and heart health, including conditions like hypertension. If you've had a stressful day, what do you do? Talk with friends or a partner about it, or withdraw and keep to yourself? How you answer that may depend on your gender. Understanding how stress affects you and adopting strategies to better manage your stress can help manage your heart health too. Learn more about how women and men handle stress, and how you can manage it in a healthy way. Dr. Shilagh Mirgain offers these tips.


Ladies – What’s Your Risk?


Dr. Kelly stresses the fact that women need to know their numbers. She says, "Your blood pressure and your cholesterol do matter and can help evaluate your cardiovascular disease risk today and predict your risk in the future."


Factors such as smoking, obesity and diabetes all play into your risk for heart disease, but there are also other unique risk factors women need to be aware of:


Pregnancy History


Kelly says, "If you had preeclampsia or gestational diabetes, you have an increased risk for heart disease." Make sure your health care provider knows your pregnancy history.


Sleep Apnea


Another often over-looked factor is sleep apnea. Dr. Kelly says, "There is a strong link between sleep apnea and cardiac disease but 93 percent of women with sleep apnea remain undiagnosed."


If you are obese, have high blood pressure or other cardiac risk factors or have been told you snore, check with your doctor to see if you should be evaluated for obstructive sleep apnea.


Ultimately both men and women need to understand their personal risk factors and the steps they can take to control them. Dr. Kelly says, "If someone in the home has heart disease or increased risk factors, the couple or the entire family will need to make changes to adopt a heart-healthy lifestyle."


This includes regular exercise, cooking healthier and eating better, and ideally finding heart-healthy activities you enjoy, and then supporting each other in doing them. Learn more about how you can take charge of your heart health

Date Published: 01/08/2015

News tag(s):  goredheart

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