Hidden Heart Threat - Women and Coronary Heart Disease
MADISON - If you're a woman, you're at risk. And chances are, you have absolutely no idea— either that you're a prime candidate for heart disease or how to recognize the early symptoms of a heart attack as it's happening.
The National Center for Health Statistics continues to list coronary heart disease as the number one killer of men and women. But Mary Zasadil, MD a UW Health preventive cardiologist, says that women are often at greater risk because the symptoms of heart disease are different for women than men.
Symptoms Aren't Always Obvious
"Traditional cardiovascular medicine has focused heavily on male heart attack symptoms and treatment," says Dr. Zasadil. "Unusual symptoms that don't fit into the common perception of a heart attack lead women to put off seeing their doctor until it's too late."
For both genders, the most common heart attack symptom is chest pain. However, women are much more likely to experience other symptoms that aren't nearly as obvious or wellknown. For example, one of Dr. Zasadil's patients was recently referred to University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics after she reported fatigue, shortness of breath and an inability to walk up a flight of stairs. Surprisingly, medical tests showed that this otherwise active and healthy 50-year-old patient was suffering from the early stages of heart disease.
Other symptoms may include: nausea or vomiting, heart palpitations, indigestion, a burning sensation in the chest or jaw as well as back pain. Although these symptoms sometimes manifest themselves in men, they're much more common in women.
Why is heart disease different for women than men? Start with biology, and add a dash of psychology.
For instance, female hormones like estrogen have been shown to aid the development of atheroscherosis, the plaque that commonly clogs arteries. Women also have naturally smaller coronary arteries, adding to the risk.
But many doctors agree that the biggest reason women are at greater risk for heart disease is that they're preoccupied with the care of others.
"In some cases, my patients readily admit that they were simply too busy and invested in their children's lives and their careers to recognize that something was seriously wrong with their own health," says Dr. Zasadil.
You Can Beat the Odds
Even with genetics and gender stacked against you, coronary heart disease remains very preventable, if you're willing to take time to take charge of your health. One significant step in the right direction is avoiding unhealthy lifestyle habits—like smoking, poor nutritional habits and skipping those sessions in the gym.
Simple steps can help to counteract these risks; Start a weekly exercise routine. Develop a chart to keep track of your health. Routine visits to the doctors for regular check-ups and avoiding unhealthy foods can also help immensely.
Although many women are still unaware of their risk of heart disease, awareness is increasing, thanks to movements like the Go Red for Women campaign. Women are participating in more clinical trials, while researchers are learning more about women's hearts and how to keep them healthy.
"Ultimately, that's what's going to help combat heart disease in women on a national level," says Dr. Zasadil. “Knowledge and prevention are really the key.”
To learn more about women's risk of heart disease—and what you can do to increase awareness—visit www.uwhealth.org/GoRed.
Date Published: 02/29/2008