While heart disease may often be considered a primary problem for men, it’s actually the leading cause of death for both men and women. Shocking, right? And though heart disease may be more common in those who are older or post-menopause, it is something that women of all ages should take seriously.
In fact, one in three female adults has some form of cardiovascular disease, which can include high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) and stroke. But before you fret that you might be dying, there are everyday steps you can take to lower your risk of heart disease. Before we address that, let’s tackle the symptoms that may surround any heart issues.
Unveiling the Symptoms of Heart Disease
Some women have no symptoms of heart disease and may not realize there is a problem until signs arise relating to a heart attack, heart failure, arrhythmia or stroke. Others may experience occasional chest pain or discomfort, pain in the neck/jaw/throat or pain in the upper abdomen/back — symptoms which can all occur during rest, sleep, physical activity or be triggered by mental stress. It is important to recognize the signs that could signal immediate danger:
- Heart attack: Discomfort, pain, tightness or pressure in the chest and upper body, pain in one or both arms, sweating, indigestion, heartburn, nausea/vomiting, lightheadedness, extreme fatigue, and shortness of breath.
- Heart failure: Extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, and swelling of the feet, ankles, legs, and abdomen.
- Arrhythmia: Feelings of fluttering or palpitations in the chest.
- Stroke: Sudden weakness, paralysis or numbness of the face, arms and legs, especially on one side of the body. Other symptoms may include confusion, trouble speaking, difficulting seeing, shortness of breath, dizziness, loss of consciousness, or a sudden severe headache.
Many women who experience a heart attack may not even succumb to the more commonly associated chest pain — symptoms can be more subtle and surprisingly often occur during rest, sleep or situations surrounding extreme mental stress. If you suspect a cardiovascular problem, seek medical attention immediately.
Common Heart Disease Risk Factors
Certain women may be at higher risk for heart disease than others, based on medical conditions, lifestyle, and family history. According to the CDC, high blood pressure, elevated LDL cholesterol and smoking are key risk factors — and nearly half of all Americans have at least one of the three.
Aging and the onset of menopause can also be a factor, as the risk of damaged arteries and weakened heart muscle can go up as you get older. And when women experience menopause (an inevitable life change), a decline in estrogen may negatively affect the arteries, as well as elevated blood pressure and LDL cholesterol — all of which are common occurrences in the body during menopause.
Other factors may also play a role in the development of heart disease, such as diabetes, mental health issues and depression, physical inactivity, obesity, poor diet, excessive alcohol use, certain chemotherapy drugs or radiation treatment for cancer, and some pregnancy complications.
How to Reduce Your Risk of Getting Heart Disease
The good news (we promise, there is some!) is that women can make several lifestyle changes in order to help lower the risk of heart disease. For example:
- Quit (or don’t start!) smoking. Heart attacks are more common in smokers than in nonsmokers. Smoking damages the inner lining of the arteries, making them narrower, and carbon monoxide reduces the amount of oxygen in your blood.
- Know your blood pressure. Uncontrolled blood pressure can result in the hardening and thickening of the arteries, making it narrower for blood to flow through. Believe it or not, high blood pressure often has no symptoms, which is why it’s important to have it checked regularly.
- Make good food choices. Foods that are heavy in trans fats, salt, and processed sugar should be avoided. Aim for a healthy diet of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy products, and lean meats.
- Exercise regularly. The heart thrives on consistent exercise, and any form of physical activity that you enjoy on a regular basis, be it walking or dancing, can make a positive impact. It’s a proven fact that muscles — like your heart! — that are utilized regularly become stronger and healthier over time.
- Limit your alcohol intake. Excessive alcohol use can lead to cardiomyopathy and also raise your blood pressure.
- Lower your stress level. Unrelieved mental strain can lead to high blood pressure or other unhealthy habits that may contribute to cardiovascular disease such as smoking, drinking, overeating, and physical inactivity. Seek out healthy ways to manage and cope with stress.
And as always, speak with your doctor about any heart-related concerns.