Heart disease is the nation’s leading killer of women and 90% of women have one or more risk factors for a stroke or heart disease, according to American Heart Association statistics. But many women may not know that symptoms can differ for them or think heart disease is more of a male concern, which can be dangerous.
Thankfully, 80% of cardiovascular diseases are preventable, but knowing your risks can have a huge impact on prevention, says Brandie Williams, M.D., a cardiologist and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Southwest Fort Worth and at Texas Health Heart & Vascular Specialists in Stephenville, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice.
“Heart disease is so common in women and it is preventable, so it is very important that women know their numbers,” she explains. “Those numbers include blood pressure (and what is the normal range for you), blood sugar, cholesterol and body mass index. By knowing and better controlling these numbers you can prevent heart disease. It’s important to take control of your own health!”
While knowing your numbers is a huge step in the right direction, there are some common but also lesser-known risk factors you may not be aware of that could raise your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Risk No. 1: Not Knowing the Symptoms
Ask anyone, male or female, to detail the main symptoms of a heart attack and most would list off “classic” symptoms such as excruciating chest pain, a squeezing feeling in the chest and a tingling sensation (or loss of sensation) in your left arm. While the most common symptom of a heart attack for both men and women is chest pain, women are more likely to experience broader, less obvious symptoms or warning signs, which can make it a bit more difficult to pinpoint a medical emergency if you don’t know what to look out for.
“Symptoms of heart attack in women can present as chest pain but many times it can also present with other symptoms such as shortness of breath, neck or jaw pain, unusual fatigue or frequent indigestion,” Williams says.
The American Heart Association lists the following heart attack symptoms that are common among women:
- Chest pain, but not always
- Pain or pressure in the lower chest or upper abdomen
- Jaw, neck or upper back pain
- Nausea or vomiting
- Shortness of breath
- Extreme fatigue
Risk No. 2: Chronic Stress
While stress is not gender-specific, it is a leading contributor to heart disease, especially if you tend to suffer from chronic stress or stress that never seems to let up.
“During times of stress the body has an increase in adrenaline which leads to increased blood pressure, heart rate and rate of breathing,” Williams explains. “Long term stress for days to weeks will lead to damage of the artery walls in the body which can ultimately lead to heart attacks and strokes.”
Additionally, Williams says increased stress also leads to unhealthy lifestyle choices such as smoking, consuming too much alcohol, prolonged periods of inactivity and overeating.
Some ways to help manage stress include going for a walk, doing yoga, talking to a friend or doing a calming hobby you enjoy, such as sewing, gardening or reading.
Risk No. 3: Putting Off Quality Sleep
In today’s fast-paced, technologically driven society, sleep tends to get placed on the back burner for so many, which can have bigger consequences beyond just feeling tired the next day. Lack of sleep — getting less than six or seven hours a night — is connected to heart disease.
“Sleep is very important, and it has been shown in many studies that sleep deprivation has a negative effect on the heart,” Williams explains. “Sleep is an essential time for the body to restore and recharge. During the non-rapid eye movement sleep stage (NREM) the heart slows and blood pressure drops. Chronic sleep deprivation has not only been linked to coronary artery disease but also rhythm problems of the heart, high blood pressure, obesity and increased risk of stroke.”
The average adult should aim for seven to nine hours of sleep.
Risk No. 4: History of Pregnancy Complications
Recent research has focused on heart disease linked to pregnancy-related complications. A study published in JAMA Cardiology found a correlation between pregnant women who had gestational diabetes, hypertension or premature deliveries were also at a higher risk for developing cardiovascular disease later in life.
“This study compared women with normal blood pressure during every pregnancy and women who developed hypertension during pregnancy,” Williams explains. “Those that had hypertension during pregnancy were 57% more likely to have a heart attack or stroke.
“While it’s not completely understood why this is the case, it is felt that patients who have higher blood pressures during pregnancy may also have other co-morbidities such as a higher body mass index (BMI), diabetes and high cholesterol, which all lead to cardiovascular disease.”
If you experienced gestational diabetes, hypertension or an early delivery during your pregnancy, it’s important to share that information with your primary care physician or health care team. This information will be added to your medical history and can be factored in with other risk factors you may have.
Risk No. 5: Skipping Those Yearly Checkups (Or Coming Unprepared)
Getting annual checkups is important for multiple reasons, even if you get a clean bill of health every time you go. During an annual checkup, your doctor can assess your heart-health risk and create a plan of action, if needed.
“Getting your annual checkup with your primary care doctor helps keep an eye on your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar,” Williams says. “Knowing these numbers, and getting treatment, will help prevent heart disease.”
But just showing up to the appointment isn’t enough. Just as you wouldn’t show up empty-handed when it’s time to get your taxes done, make sure you prepare for your appointment and create a list of concerns, questions or complaints you want to discuss.
Heart disease doesn’t discriminate between genders, but there can be some differences when it comes to risk factors and symptoms. Understanding those risks then making a plan to get ahead of them can go a long way in setting yourself up for success.
As with all healthy efforts, though, it helps to have a partner. Working with a trusted health care provider can help you highlight any areas that need to be focused on and create a treatment plan tailored to you, your health and your daily life. But don’t count out other support systems, such as friends, family members, co-workers or support groups. Find someone who can hold you accountable and be a good partner for getting physically active and sticking with a healthy eating plan.