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Women & Heart Disease

Heart disease is the number one killer of women in the U.S., and many women go undiagnosed until it is too late. A recent study by the American Heart Association presented the disturbing news that heart disease is actually increasing in women aged 35 to 54 years.

The most common type of heart disease is coronary artery disease (CAD), which occurs when plaque builds up on the inner walls of coronary arteries. This gunky stuff is made up of fat, cholesterol, calcium and other substances found in the blood. When it builds up in the arteries, the condition is called atherosclerosis. Over time, plaque can harden or rupture -- and this is bad news for your heart. The most common kind of heart attack happens when plaque ruptures and a blood clot partially or completely blocks blood flow through a coronary artery.

Symptoms of a heart attack in women can be subtle. According to the American Heart Association, if you have any of these signs, call 9-1-1 right away:

  • Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
  • 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.


Lifestyle and heart disease

Coronary artery disease is usually preventable and its progression can be slowed. Smoking, being overweight, lack of exercise and poor diet are some of the leading causes of CAD. The best thing you can do is take care of yourself: talk to your doctor about developing a lifestyle plan that includes the following key points:

  • Eat a heart-healthy diet
  • Become physically active
  • Reduce stress
  • Know your blood pressure and cholesterol levels and keep them under control


Heart disease through the stages of a woman's life

Women of all ages need to be aware of heart disease and take steps to reduce their risk, especially if there is a history of heart disease in the family. The following are risk factors specific to women:

  • Preeclampsia, high blood pressure or diabetes during pregnancy
  • "Broken Heart Syndrome," also known as takotsubo or stress cardiomyopathy
  • Menopause (Avoid menopausal hormone therapy if you have heart disease. Studies have shown the risks outweigh any potential benefit).

No matter what your age, be sure to talk to your doctor about lowering your risk of heart disease. Your doctor is an important partner in helping you set and reach goals for heart health, so always be open and honest discussing symptoms and issues you may be facing.