As a primary care physician, heart disease is a topic I discuss with my patients daily. I might sound like a broken record, but every February I can’t help but try to educate as many women and men as I can about heart disease and how different it is for women versus men. Despite the American Heart Association (AHA) stating that 1 in 3 women will die of heart disease and that there’s an increase in heart disease in women under age 55, there are still many disparities in how women pursue preventive measures and receive care.
For instance, women wait more than 30 percent longer than men to get to a hospital after first experiencing symptoms of a heart attack. Women are also 50 percent more likely to be diagnosed incorrectly after a heart attack.
Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of both men and women in this country. The most important thing for all women to understand is that 80 percent of the time, heart disease is preventable.
1. Lack of awareness
Less than 60 percent of women recognize that heart disease is the leading cause of death among women.
That statistic has improved over the last couple of decades, but not to where it needs to be. Physicians need to do a better job of educating the general population, especially women. Even women who had a heart attack are more likely to think they will die from some form of cancer rather than heart disease, especially breast cancer, and sometimes even lung cancer. As often as women think about an annual mammogram, they should also be thinking of visiting their PCP for their yearly heart checkup.
2. Different symptoms from men
While men most often present with chest discomfort in the middle of the chest under the sternum, women can experience more subtle and different signs of heart disease, such as:
shortness of breath
When women are not aware of the symptoms being connected to a cardiac event, they don’t get to the emergency room in time and there is more likely to be damage to the heart muscle. When women and men don’t get appropriate therapy immediately, then that muscle is forever scarred and more likely to have heart failure, arrhythmias, or recurring events.
3. Lack of women in studies
There is not nearly as much research about women and heart disease as there is in men. Up until recently, heart disease was felt to be a man’s disease, therefore, women were not included in medical research. Today strides have been made and more women are included in studies. Now the American Heart Association has an educational initiative for women to really understand their heart disease risks and the AHA is also supporting research and science.
What can women do?
Family history of heart disease puts women and men at increased risk, and both genders need to practice the same lifestyle habits for heart health, including:
drinking in moderation
exercising - moderate activity for 30 minutes, 5 day a week
maintaining a moderate weight
getting adequate sleep, ideally 7 hours per night
Additionally, research is showing that women who have abnormalities associated with arthritis like systemic lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, which are associated with chronic inflammation, may be at greater risk for heart disease, as well as women who experience hypertension or gestational diabetes during pregnancy.
The bottom line is that going for a well visit every year, where you can get screened for the markers of heart disease with a primary care physician is important. Prevention begins there. Develop a relationship with your doctor, advocate for yourself, and make lifestyle changes. Hug your mom, hug your sister, hug your friend, and tell her about heart disease. Happy Heart Day, Naples!
Call and schedule a complimentary meet and greet with Dr. Fedelem.
9150 Galleria Ct., Suite 200, Naples, FL 34109 | LornaFedelemMD.com | 239.580.6390