Getting To The Heart Of Women’s Health

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By Gerald F. Joseph, Jr, MD
President, The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists

Knowledge is power when it comes to heart disease, the number one killer of women in the US, and all women will benefit from learning more about it.

During American Heart Month in February, you may have heard more talk about heart disease, how to recognize it in women, and how to maintain or improve heart health. Have you been listening?

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Just in case you missed it, here are some facts you should know:

Its Toll on Women. Heart disease killed more than 432,000 US women in 2006—roughly one woman per minute. It kills more women than men in the US every year, and more than 42 million women are living with or at risk for heart disease.

The Signs Can Be Hard to Spot. Roughly one-third of heart attacks in women go unnoticed or unreported, in part because people don’t know what to look for. Heart attack often manifests differently in men and women, making the signs harder to recognize and delaying diagnosis in women.

Become familiar with the signs of heart attack in women, which can include:

  • Sudden, uncomfortable pressure, fullness, squeezing, or pain, usually in the center of the chest that lasts for more than five minutes
  • Pain in the chest that radiates out to the shoulders, back, neck, jaw, stomach, or one or both arms
  • Shortness of breath
  • Lightheadedness, fainting, sweating, nausea, and vomiting

Risk Factors for Heart Disease. Women who have a body mass index of 25 or higher, waist circumference greater than 35 inches, high blood pressure (above 120/80), high cholesterol (total cholesterol greater than 200 mg/dL), or diabetes have an increased chance of developing heart disease.

All of these health problems are on the rise among women in the US.
According to the American Heart Association, an estimated 11.5 million women are diabetic; more than half of women are overweight or obese; 48% of women have borderline high cholesterol; 39% of women have high blood pressure; and many women are sedentary and get no physical activity.

Lowering Your Risk. Fortunately, heart disease is largely preventable and individual efforts can make a difference. Talk to your doctor about risk reduction strategies and ask how you can improve preexisting conditions such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or diabetes.

You may find that healthy lifestyle habits help. Try to consume a diet high in fiber and low in saturated fats, cholesterol, and refined carbohydrates. Get 30 to 90 minutes of exercise on most days of the week and quit smoking. Your doctor may also prescribe medication for health problems that don’t improve through lifestyle changes.

For more information, go to americanheart.org. ?


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