Women’s Heart Month: Are you at risk for heart disease?
Seeing red? February is Women’s Heart Month, and each year women around the country wear scarlet to raise awareness of the risk heart disease poses for women.
Heart disease is the leading killer of women in the United States, causing one of every three deaths, according to the American Heart Association. Yet, experts say, many women are not accurately diagnosed or treated for the disease.
“The lack of information about heart disease that is tailored specifically for women is shocking,” says Karol Watson, MD, PhD, a UCLA cardiologist and director of the UCLA Women’s Cardiovascular Center.
Here’s what every woman should know about this deadly disease.
What is heart disease?
The term describes a number of problems that affect the blood vessels or the heart itself. Common causes of heart disease include:
- Atherosclerosis – a condition that develops when waxy deposits called plaque build up in the arteries, making it harder for blood to pass through.
- Heart failure – a condition in which the heart doesn’t pump blood as well as it should.
- Heart valve diseases – occurs when valves in the heart don’t open or close normally, affecting blood flow.
- Abnormal heart rhythms – the heart beats too fast, too slow or in an irregular rhythm.
Am I at increased risk for heart disease?
A variety of factors raise your risk of developing heart disease:
- Family history of early heart disease
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- Metabolic syndrome
- Cigarette smoking
- Excess weight and obesity
- Alcohol consumption
- Sleep apnea
- Lack of physical activity
Why is heart disease underdiagnosed in women?
Heart disease can look different in women than it does in men. Some women experience symptoms of heart disease such as chest pain or discomfort, fatigue, shortness of breath, swelling in the legs, or fluttering heartbeat. But many experience no symptoms at all.
What’s more, heart attack symptoms can differ between genders, too. Most people think chest pain is the classic sign of a heart attack. While that’s still common in women, they are more likely to experience lesser-known signs of a heart attack, including nausea, shortness of breath and pain in the back or jaw. If you don’t know these may be signs of a problem, you may not think to get help immediately – so understanding possible symptoms is key to saving lives.
What can I do to reduce my risk?
Some of the risk factors for heart disease, such as age or family history, are out of your hands, but many are things that you can control. To lower your risk:
- Stop smoking
- Limit alcohol
- Eat a healthy diet
- Get regular physical activity
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Manage your blood sugar
- Control your blood pressure and cholesterol
Women of any age can have heart disease, even athletes and healthy-eating aficionados. That’s why it’s important to have a regular physical exam. Talk to your doctor to find out if you’re at risk of developing heart disease, and what you can do to prevent it.
Learn more about the UCLA Women’s Cardiovascular Center, a program dedicated to the prevention, treatment and management of heart disease in women.