Mention the term "heart attack" and most people imagine a pudgy, middle-aged man drenched in sweat and clutching his chest. Few people seem to consider heart disease a woman's disease.
Yet cardiovascular disease is the leading killer of women over age 25. It kills nearly twice as many women in the United States as all types of cancer, including breast cancer.
Men have a greater risk for coronary artery disease and heart attacks earlier in life than women. Women's risk for heart disease increases after menopause.
EARLY HEART SIGNS
Women may have warning signs that they ignore for weeks, months, and even years before having a heart attack. Some doctors still do not recognize the warning signs reported by female patients.
Men most often have the "classic" heart attack signs: tightness in the chest, arm pain, and shortness of breath.
Women's symptoms can resemble those of men. However, a woman will complain of other symptoms, such as nausea, fatigue, indigestion, anxiety, and dizziness.
ACT IN TIME
Recognizing and treating a heart attack right away improves your chance for survival. The typical American -- male or female -- waits 2 hours before calling for help.
Know the warning signs and always call 911 within 5 minutes of when symptoms begin. By acting quickly, you can limit damage to your heart.
MANAGE YOUR RISK FACTORS
A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or having a certain health condition. You can change some risk factors for heart disease. Other risk factors you cannot change.
Women should work with their health care provider to address risk factors they can change.
Use lifestyle measures to keep your blood cholesterol levels in the right range. Targets for cholesterol levels vary depending on your risk factors. Ask your health care provider which targets are best for you.
Also keep your blood pressure in a healthy range. Your ideal blood pressure level will depend on your risk factors. Discuss your target blood pressure with your health care provider.
Estrogen is no longer used to prevent heart disease in women of any age. Estrogen may increase the risk of heart disease in older women. However, it may still be used in some women to treat hot flashes or other medical problems.
Estrogen use is probably safest in women under 60 years of age.
It should be used for the shortest possible period of time.
Only women who have a low risk for stroke, heart disease, blood clots, or breast cancer should take estrogen.
For some women who are at increased risk for heart disease, daily low-dose aspirin may be used to prevent heart attacks. Because aspirin can increase the risk for bleeding, your health care provider should discuss whether the benefits outweigh the risks in your case.
LIVE A HEALTHY LIFESTYLE
Some of the risk factors for heart disease that you CAN change are:
Do not smoke or use tobacco.
Get plenty of exercise. Women who need to lose or keep off weight should get at least 60 - 90 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise on most days. To maintain your health, get at least 30 minutes of exercise a day, preferably at least 5 days a week.
Maintain a healthy weight. Women should strive for a body mass index (BMI) between 18.5 and 24.9 and a waist smaller than 35 inches.
Get checked and treated for depression, if necessary.
Women with high cholesterol or triglyceride levels may benefit from omega-3 fatty acid supplements.
If you drink alcohol, limit yourself to no more than one drink per day.
Good nutrition is important to your heart health, and it will help control some of your heart disease risk factors.
Eat a diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Choose lean proteins, such as chicken, fish, beans, and legumes.
Eat low-fat dairy products, such as skim milk and low-fat yogurt.
Avoid sodium (salt) and fats found in fried foods, processed foods, and baked goods.
Eat fewer animal products that contain cheese, cream, or eggs.
Read labels, and stay away from "saturated fat" and anything that contains "partially-hydrogenated" or "hydrogenated" fats. These products are usually loaded with unhealthy fats.
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David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine; and Michael A. Chen, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Division of Cardiology, Harborview Medical Center, University of Washington Medical School, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.