February is American Heart Month - the perfect time to remind women of three things they need to know about heart disease.
It's the leading cause of death among U.S. women, accounting for one in three deaths, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). While progress to reduce that rate has been made in the past 20 years, improving risk factors and death rates in women under 50 has been slow going.
That's why the AHA is calling on women to do three things: Recognize the signs of a heart attack; understand their heart disease risk factors; and make healthy lifestyle changes to prevent heart disease.
No. 1: Know that heart attack symptoms in men and women can differ. Chest pain is the leading symptom in both, but in women it may not be the only or predominant symptom, according to Dr. Rekha Mankad, a cardiologist and director of the Mayo Clinic Women's Heart Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
"Chest pain is there, but it may not double you over. The pain may be in the jaw, radiate around to the back or go up the neck. A woman might have shortness of breath, might feel sick to her stomach or break out in a sweat," Mankad said in a Mayo Clinic news release. "Women experiencing a heart attack may be fatigued and often have an overwhelming feeling of unease - that something is not right."
Women often ignore these symptoms because they doubt they could be having a heart attack. A 2019 AHA survey found that only 44% of respondents knew that heart disease is the leading cause of death for women.
No. 2: Know your risk for heart attack and stroke. These include age, high blood pressure, diabetes, a concerning cholesterol profile, and smoking or vaping.
A cholesterol profile that is high in "bad" low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and triglycerides - fats in the blood - increases the risk of heart disease for both sexes.
Women are more likely than men to have high blood pressure as they age, so they should watch for changes, because high blood pressure could put more strain on the heart, arteries and kidneys. It also increases the risk of stroke. Women who have diabetes or smoke are at a higher risk for heart disease than men who do.
It's also important for women to pay attention to complications such as gestational diabetes, elevated blood pressure during pregnancy or preterm labor delivery, because they can increase the risk of heart disease later in life.
Any of these risk factors should be shared and discussed with a health care professional, Mankad said.
No. 3: Reduce your risk. To help prevent heart disease, take action to manage blood pressure, control cholesterol, reduce blood sugar, get daily physical activity, eat a healthy diet, lose weight and stop smoking.
"Quitting smoking or stopping vaping is one of the best things you can do for your heart," Mankad said.
"The most sustainable changes often start small," she added. "As little as 10 minutes of walking or activity each day can boost mood and start a healthy habit to build upon. Replacing one processed food with a more nutritious whole grain, fruit or vegetable, and choosing olive oil over hydrogenated oils all have a positive impact on heart health over time."
The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute offers a guide to a healthy heart.
SOURCE: Mayo Clinic, news release, Feb. 1, 2022