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February 6 is National Wear Red Day

American Heart Association campaign calls attention to women's heart disease

NEW YORK CITY, NY (February 5, 2009) -- Friday, Feb. 6, 2008 is National Wear Red Day, a campaign inspired by the American Heart Association to bring attention to women's heart disease. By wearing red on this day, Americans have an opportunity to show their support for women's heart health awareness.

One look at the statistics and the need for the Wear Red Day awareness campaign is very clear. Heart disease remains the number one killer of American women - almost one in three women will die of heart disease.  Six times as many women die of heart disease every year as they do from breast cancer. Women who survive heart disease may have high medical expenses, significant disability and decreased quality of life.  Despite an increasing public awareness of heart disease, many women still do not realize that they are at risk for heart disease or that they may have risk factors, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or high cholesterol that contribute to that risk.

Julia Shin, MD, cardiologist at the Montefiore-Einstein Heart Center, offers the following overview of how heart disease affects women, how to identify risk factors, and the importance of early intervention.

What is heart disease? 

Coronary artery disease, or coronary atherosclerosis, is the main form of heart disease.  Coronary artery disease can cause a heart attack by blocking off the vessels that feed the heart muscle.  When the artery becomes blocked by fatty plaques, the heart becomes starved of oxygen and can die, compromising cardiac function or causing abnormal heart rhythms.  Other forms of cardiovascular disease include: heart failure, in which the "pump" function of the heart fails, leading to shortness of breath or fatigue; arrhythmias, or abnormal heart rhythms; and stroke.

What are women's specific risk factors for heart disease?  There are some that we cannot do anything to change, such as:

  • Age
  • Menopause
  • Family history of heart disease

Taking hormone replacement therapy will not decrease your risk for heart disease after menopause and may actually increase your risk for some cardiovascular diseases.  Most other risk factors, however, are modifiable and can be controlled with the help of your doctor.  They include:

  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Obesity

Women who have any of these risk factors should:

  • Exercise regularly
  • Eat healthy foods
  • Keep a healthy weight
  • Avoid smoking cigarettes

All of these actions will significantly reduce a woman's risk of developing heart disease. However, the most important thing a woman can do is to see her doctor, who will check her blood pressure, her cholesterol level, screen for diabetes, and determine if she has any risk factors for heart disease.

Early intervention can lower risk 

A woman's risk for heart disease starts to rise at age 40.  It is still important, however, for younger women to be aware of their heart disease risk factors because they may be able to modify them early, by stopping smoking, exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy weight, for example. 

It is never too early for a woman to take action to prevent and manage the risk factors for heart disease.  African-American, American Indian, and Hispanic women have disproportionately high rates of various risk factors for heart disease, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity.  It is particularly important for all women to be aware of their risks for heart disease and to teach their friends, mothers, sisters and daughters to do the same.

Gender differences in heart treatment

Another reason for women to be vigilant about their heart health is that unfortunately, they are not treated the same as men when they develop heart disease.  A study published in the May 2008 issue of the journal Heart showed that women were less likely than men to receive certain medications crucial to preventing future heart problems after being diagnosed with a heart attack.  There are many other studies that show that women are less likely to receive life-saving therapies than men after being diagnosed with heart disease.  There is no question that healthcare professionals need to do a better job at treating women with heart disease. 

In addition, women are not as accurately diagnosed as men when they present with heart disease.  Part of the problem is that women can present differently than men when they have a heart attack.  For example, women may just feel short of breath or fatigued when they have a heart attack, and not feel the crushing chest pain that is described as the typical heart attack symptom.  So how can you tell if you are having a heart attack?  The symptoms to be aware of are:

  • Pain, discomfort, tightness, squeezing or pressure in the middle of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes
  • Pain or discomfort in shoulders, neck, jaw or arms, accompanied by shortness of breath, nausea or sweating
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Lightheadedness
  • Nausea
  • Clammy sweats
  • Unexplained fatigue or anxiety
  • Stomach pain

If you feel any of these symptoms, you should call 911 and chew a full-strength aspirin right away to prevent further blood clotting in the arteries.  In the emergency room, the doctor will do an electrocardiogram (ECG) and/or draw blood work to confirm if you are experiencing a heart attack.

The bottom line is, more women die of heart disease than any other disease, and heart disease is preventable.  Most women can significantly reduce their risk of heart disease if they know their risk factors and work with their doctors and support groups to modify them.  Don't become a heart disease statistic.  Start now to make heart-smart changes in your life.

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