What We Don’t Talk About: Heart Health in Women

February is American Heart Month (also known as Heart Health Month). Most of the information we hear about heart disease is geared towards men, despite the fact that one in three women suffer from some type of heart disease.

Studies from the American Heart Association have shown that about half of women do not know that the number one cause of death in women is heart disease, and a much lower percentage said that they thought themselves to be at risk.

Most people know the signs of a heart attack in males, but the symptoms that occur in women are not as well-known and not nearly as obvious. This is part of why women are more likely to die from a heart attack than men. Most of us know how to check for the signs of breast cancer, but we”˜re not as informed of our risk for heart disease, which unfortunately affects more women than any other disease.

Personally, my grandmother and sister have passed away due to heart disease. Other family members continue to suffer from heart disease. My grandmother died in her fifties of a sudden heart attack before I was born. I realized when I had heard of the ongoing Go Red campaign that even though I am considered high risk, I did not know the signs of a heart attack in a woman. It dawned on me that it was time to take heart health seriously. I “went red” (wearing red in honor of Heart Health Month) every day for the  month of February. I thought that perhaps this was pointless slacktivism, but every time I caught a glimpse of my red clothes I was reminded of the significance of the color red, and that I needed to make my daily habits with heart health in mind. The first thing I did was to become aware of the signs of a heart attack in women.

 These are the signs of a heart attack in women, according to the American Heart Association:

  • Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest that lasts more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back.
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
  • Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
  • As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting, and back or jaw pain.

If you have any of these signs, don’t wait more than five minutes before calling for help. Call 9-1-1 and get to a hospital right away.

There are many factors that can make us considered high risk for heart disease. Some of the highest known risk factors include women with a family history of heart disease, seniors and those who are post-menopausal, smokers, those of First Nations, African or South Asian descent, and those of us who have experienced pre-eclampsia or gestational diabetes during pregnancy. A significant risk factor is high stress levels and untreated depression. High blood pressure, high blood sugar, and high triglycerides all contribute to heart disease. A high BMI and excessive alcohol consumption can also be risk factors.
Know your risk! You can get a risk assessment from your doctor. Some of these risk factors are things that we cannot control. Fortunately, there are things that we can do to lower our risk.

This is what we can do to lower our risk:

  • 30 minutes of moderate exercise on a near daily basis. It can be as simple as a brisk walk or doing yard work.
  • Daily exercise can also relieve stress. Sleep, meditation and therapy can all help to lower our stress and anxiety levels.
  • Eating a heart-healthy diet that includes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low fat dairy products, fish, skinless poultry, and lean meats. Be sure to enjoy foods that contain polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, which are found in nuts, fish, and some vegetable oils. Avoid trans fat. Limit your intake of salt, cholesterol and saturated fat, and high sugar foods.
  • Your risk of coronary heart disease is cut in half by quitting smoking. Smoking increases your risk of coronary disease by fifty percent.
  • It is important to maintain certain levels of cholesterol, BMI, and blood pressure (discuss your personal goals with your doctor).

These are just small steps that we can take every day to manage our risk and help to protect our hearts!

2 replies on “What We Don’t Talk About: Heart Health in Women”

Yes! It always seems odd to me that you can buy all manner of things in pink to fight breast cancer, which is completely a worthwhile cause, but you don’t see the same sort of groundswell/activism surrounding heart disease, which kills far more women. I feel like maybe that’s because there’s more of a stigma on cardiac illness because a lot of it is seen as “preventable” – which is true to an extent, but ignoring a real problem for that sort of reason elevates it into a self-perpetuating cycle (if the key to decreasing rates of heart disease is prevention, let’s not stigmatize the disease by saying “oh, but it’s preventable”).

Great to see this here – it’s such a legacy of institutional sexism in medical research that women’s symptoms are considered ‘atypical’ and men’s ‘typical’. And I really appreciate your point that heart disease kills more women than breast cancer but the PR effort hasn’t been nearly as effective.

Last year Elizabeth Banks did a video for the American Heart Association, really good awareness-raising:

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