Go Red Takes Women’s Health to Heart

The statistics are staggering — heart disease kills a woman every minute, making it the number one cause of death for females.

Long thought to be something that affects men more than women, heart attacks and strokes are now understood to be equal opportunity afflictions. In fact, 90 percent of women have one or more risk factors for a stroke or heart disease. All of these factors spurred the American Heart Association’s Go Red™ for Women National Wear Red DayR — a day to wear red, fundraise for research and encourage greater awareness. Texas Health Resources is a local sponsor.

“The greatest misconception about women and heart disease is that up until relatively recently, both women and their physicians significantly underestimated the likelihood of heart disease in women,” said Nina Asrani, a cardiologist and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Harris Methodist Fort Worth. “Many women still believe that breast cancer is their greatest threat when in fact, cardiovascular disease is the most common cause of death for women in the U.S.”

A 2013 study revealed that while awareness of the risks has increased among women, it still lags among young women and minorities, the American Heart Association said. In 2012, 56 percent of women identified heart disease as a leading cause of death (only 30 percent did so in 1997), but women ages 25-34 had the lowest awareness rate in regards to heart disease of any group of women at 44 percent.

Fewer women than men survive heart attacks, too, which makes it even more important to understand that the symptoms of a heart attack and stroke can be quite different for women.

“Women often have the misconception that the symptoms of heart disease are just crushing chest pain,” Asrani explained. “While women may have chest pain or pressure, they are more likely to have other symptoms as well, such as nausea, fatigue and shortness of breath. They may also feel their discomfort more in the neck, jaw or shoulders instead of in the central chest.”

And while most women can recite the familiar diagnostic milestones of Pap smears and mammograms, heart disease and heart health have no real age markers.

“There is not a specific age or screening recommendation for heart disease,” Asrani said. “There is an increased incidence of heart disease in women over age 65, but younger women can be at risk for heart disease as well.”

So how do you keep on top of your heart health?

“The main recommendations from a preventive standpoint for heart disease are to manage your risk factors well,” Asrani said She suggested women do the following:

1) Know your blood pressure and get treatment if it’s high.

2) Know your cholesterol level and take steps to reduce it if necessary.

3) Check for diabetes, and if you have it, treat it appropriately.

4) Don’t smoke, and quit if you do.

5) Work on a healthy diet, and be sure to exercise.

“The American Heart Association estimates that if we did an optimal job of managing these risk factors, 80 percent of heart disease would be prevented,” Asrani added.

Worried that it’s too late to make positive changes to your heart health because of lifestyle choices you’ve made?

“It is never too late to work on diet and exercise!” Asrani insisted. “We tend to focus a lot on weight loss, but it is important to recognize that both a healthy diet and regular exercise have a beneficial effect on your overall health, regardless of weight.”

Asrani added that the recommendations for a healthy diet include a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains (as opposed to refined grains like white bread and white rice), and lean meats.

“It is important to avoid trans fats or ‘partially hydrogenated’ oils, and to use sugar or sweeteners in moderation,” she said.

And exercise can be as simple as starting with regular walks and slowly adding more to your routine.

“In terms of exercise, when starting a new routine, it is always important to start slowly and gradually build up your activity level, and to be watchful for symptoms,” Asrani said. “If you notice symptoms with exercise, such as excessive shortness of breath, chest tightness, or other symptoms that concern you, stop and see your doctor. If you are concerned about starting an exercise program, talk with your doctor to go over your individual risk.”

Interested in assessing your own risks or finding a cardiologist? Had to the physician finder to locate a cardiologist in your neighborhood. How Old is Your Heart?™ Find out by taking our heart risk assessment.

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