Matters of the Heart: Christ Medical Center Cardiologist Urges Women to Make Heart Health A Priority
Oak Lawn, Ill. -- In an unwelcome example of gender equality, heart disease remains the leading cause of death for U.S. men and women. In fact, according to the American Heart Association, more women die of cardiovascular disease than from the next four causes of death combined, including all forms of cancer.
Lubna Piracha DO, a cardiologist at Advocate Christ Medical Center and an Advocate Medical Group physician, says that this statement often elicits a murmur of surprise at presentations about women’s heart health.
“Many women don’t realize they may be at risk or don’t fully understand how important it is to make the right choices for their hearts,” she says. “This includes heart-healthy diet, regular exercise, abstinence from smoking and reducing stress. It also includes knowing their risks, getting regular screenings, and being able to recognize warning signs so that they can get responsive care when they need it.”
Women can take advantage of the Framingham risk-factors assessment and determine their chances of experiencing a heart “event” within the next five years to 10 years, Dr. Piracha said. Heart disease risks include those that are controllable – obesity, hypertension, smoking, and high cholesterol – and those that are not, such as genetic factors and age. Information for the Framingham risk assessment comes from the Framingham Heart Study, which, since 1948, has followed the progression of heart disease and risks factors associated with it.
Dr. Piracha applauds the American Heart Association’s efforts to increase awareness of cardiovascular disease in women, especially the signs and symptoms of a heart attack. These symptoms can include:
Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of the chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back, which is typical.
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, and fatigue.
As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. However, women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.
“It is vital that women understand this last point—that they may experience the early signs of a heart attack differently than men,” says Dr. Piracha. “Fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea, what some describe as ‘flu symptoms,’ or palpitations are often the first indications that a woman is suffering an urgent heart problem rather than the jaw or and chest pain more often associated with a heart attack. Lack of awareness about these symptoms can prevent women from getting life-saving care.”
Dr. Piracha emphasizes that mortality rates following a heart attack are higher for women. “At all ages, women’s survival from a heart attack is lower than men,” she says. “Additionally, at age 65 and older the risk of heart attack is higher for women than for men.” She says reasons for the disparity in mortality rates are not fully understood, but may relate in part to the difference in symptoms and a possible delay in getting treatment.
“We tend of think of heart disease as a more urgent problem for men, especially men ‘of a certain age,’” she says. “How often have we heard the term ‘widow-maker’ when talking about a certain type of heart attack? Why don’t we talk about a ‘widower-maker,’ too? The way we talk about and think about heart disease underscores our lack of awareness that women are at risk, too.”
What can women do? Dr. Piracha urges women to make heart health a “top of the list” priority, with steps that include:
Regular medical evaluations that include blood pressure and lipid levels
Diet low in sodium and sugar, but rich in fruit, vegetables and low-fat protein
Moderate to vigorous exercise – at least four days to five days a week for 30 minutes to 45 minutes each time
Stress reduction through exercise, relaxation techniques and work-life balance
“My message to women is simple… be smart about your heart health. We are so good at taking care others. But we must start by taking care of ourselves,” she said.