Matters of the Heart

We’ve all heard the warnings. We’ve all skimmed the health articles online, or in magazines telling us which risk factors are particularly important to pay attention to. To some it may seem like information overload.  To others it may seem irrelevant because heart disease is normally associated with an aging population, right?

Wrong.

The unfortunate truth is that heart disease is the #1 killer of women in North America and thinking that you don't have to worry about it now is a dangerous and incorrect assumption.

As February, National Heart Month, draws to a close, this is the perfect time to  take a women-centric look at this global health concern.

Women vs. Men:  The Symptoms

During the past ten years, there has been an unbelievable shift and change of focus to examine the sex differences associated with heart disease. Currently, the biggest issue circles around symptoms and how they are presented. Specifically, the way in which men exhibit symptoms is vastly different from how women do.  All of the information outlined here can be found at www.mayoclinic.com, www.webmd.com and www.americanheart.org.

The unfortunate truth is that heart disease is the #1 killer of women in North America and thinking that you don’t have to worry about it now is a dangerous and incorrect assumption.

In both sexes, the most common symptom is chest pain. However, in women this pain or discomfort may not be as prominent as it is in men.  For women there are other critical differences in the type of symptoms we may exhibit.  They include:

  • Neck discomfort
  • Shoulder discomfort
  • Upper back discomfort
  • Lightheadedness
  • Unusual fatigue

Because these symptoms do not scream heart trouble, women tend to wait an abnormally long time to seek medical attention.

Learn The Risk Factors

We all know that being good to our bodies is important for preventing disease and feeling better overall. Unfortunately, and as unfair as life can be sometimes, women have been handed the short end of the stick when it comes to general risk factors. Indeed, research from the Mayo Clinic indicates that although common to men and women, risks like: metabolic syndrome, depression, and smoking are a greater risk for women.

Hormone Replacement Therapy & Heart Health

Women have other unique issues and problems. Although beyond the scope of this article, one area of particular concern is hormone replacement therapy and heart health. Volumes of research and conflicting opinions exist regarding this serious issue.  Read, research, and talk to your  doctor to get the most accurate information.

Treatment

Serious disparities exist regarding how women are treated by physicians so even after diagnosis, there may be problems.  According to the American Heart Association, standard therapies and diagnostic tests (including, administration of aspirin or heart medications, reperfusion therapy and angioplasty) that would be readily given to men occur less frequently in women. This can be attributed largely to the lack of awareness by both patient and doctor of the gender differences and heart disease. This is why being knowledgeable and proactive with your doctor is extremely important.

Single Women Have a Higher Risk of Coronary Disease

Although it seems laughable, a 2006 Danish study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health by Nielson and colleagues reported that single women have a higher risk of coronary disease compared to married women. Obviously, such studies must acknowledge that numerous factors - independent of relationship status - affect heart health. Important factors such as depression, stress levels, and overall health have a lot to do with disease onset in general. According to research from the Mayo Clinic, women who suffer from depression are more than twice as likely to have cardiac problems as compared to men. Admittedly, these data are interesting, but are we to believe that marriage or having a partner is the cure for heart attacks and by extension, a longer life? Fairytales may tell us that men can pull off some amazing feats; protecting your heart against damage and disease, however, is not one of them!

Take Control!

Your heart is a beautiful and complex organ, and like any muscle, it needs to be taken care of and worked properly to be made stronger. The best thing that all women can do is to be aware of the risk factors. Unlike many things in our lives, we do have considerable control over our health and our bodies. Find an activity you love, eat well, sleep well, and take care of your body. Your heart will thank you.

Kate Angelis received her PhD from Queen’s University, Canada in 2005. She is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in molecular cardiology at UCLA.