While we hear and talk a lot about breast cancer as a priority health issue facing women in general, heart disease remains the leading killer of women. The CDC indicates that up to 1 in 5 female deaths each year can be attributed to heart disease.
While even in the medical profession, we may think of heart disease as a “man’s disease” or an “older woman’s disease” associated with menopause, the reality is that about 6% of women aged 20 and older have coronary artery disease, and almost as many women as men die each year of heart disease in the US. Understanding the different aspects of heart disease in women is an important step in preventing these fatalities.
Women can present differently than men when suffering from heart related conditions.
According to the Mayo Clinic, chest pain remains the most common symptom of heart attack in both men and women. In women, though, the chest pain can be perceived as less severe, and the “pressure” or “tightness” sensation may not be very noticeable.
Women are also more likely than men to have seemingly unrelated symptoms such as neck, shoulder, upper back, or upper abdominal pain, and may present with nausea or vomiting or even lightheadedness and fatigue. Lack of the typical “crushing chest pain” that is associated with heart disease or heart attack can lead to delayed or missed diagnoses in women, especially younger women in their 40’s and 50’s. Understanding atypical presentations and accessing care if there is an acute change in discomfort and function is one way for women to self-advocate.
Studies show that stress and depression affect women’s hearts more than men.
While there is the anticipated impact of depression on lifestyle and lack of attention to self care, there is also evidence of differences between the sexes in the inflammatory states caused by depression. With inflammation contributing to heart disease and heart disease contributing to risk of depression in women, the complex equation of heart health can seem overwhelming.
Regular assessment of overall wellbeing is an essential component of maintaining good heart health. In addition to stress/depression, risk factors that play a bigger role in the development of heart disease in women than in men include diabetes, smoking, family history of early heart disease, and hormonal changes such as pregnancy and menopause. Attention to traditional risk factors of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity and the impacts of diet and exercise is also needed.
CDC recommends the following for all women to improve heart health:
Manage stress levels. Although this is always a challenge access to information regarding improving and controlling stress is more available to the average person these days. How about gratitude journals or learning meditation? Lots of resources are available through Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), wellness programs, and online resources.
Be physically active. Current recommendations are for at least 2 ½ hours of physical activity each week. Get out there and take a walk or ride a bike. Get creative and dance in the kitchen while making dinner! And bring a friend…it’s always easier to stick to exercise goals when others are involved in the activity.
Eat a healthy balanced diet. Increase fresh fruits and vegetables whenever possible and cut down on processed foods. Drink more water… most of us could do a better job in this department!
Limit alcohol and quit smoking. Current recommendation for women is one or less alcoholic beverage per day. No level of smoking exposure is safe/healthy.
Check for diabetes and manage blood pressure. While family history is not something you can change it can be a warning sign that areas such as blood sugar and blood pressure control are needed. Be aware and monitor these aspects of health and plan to make lifestyle and possibly medication changes if they become elevated.
The differences between men and women when it comes to heart disease include different impacts from daily routines, life stressors, and family history of heart disease. While we all need to focus on regular exercise, healthy balanced diet and managing stress, these are especially important for women.
February reminds us to take better care of our hearts and Go Red for Women lets us know that a woman’s heart may need a slightly different focus of attention.
In all states except New York, group insurance policies are underwritten by Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada (Wellesley Hills, MA). In New York, group insurance policies are underwritten by Sun Life and Health Insurance Company (U.S.) (Lansing, MI).
SLPC 31998 1/23 (Exp 1/25)