Why heart disease is often a surprise killer in women, and how you can lower your risk.
Kara Kennedy, daughter of the late Senator Ted Kennedy, is the most recent member of the Kennedy clan to meet a tragic end. The 51-year-old filmmaker and cancer survivor suffered a fatal heart attack in September after a workout at her Washington, D.C.-area health club. Kennedy had adopted a healthy diet and exercise routine after she was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2002.
As in Kennedy’s case, heart disease is often a surprise killer among women. It’s widely seen as a male problem, but the truth is that more women than men die each year from heart-related conditions. An estimated 42 million women in the United States suffer from heart disease, most commonly coronary artery disease, which can lead to heart attacks. Many of those women may not even be aware of their condition. By learning the facts about women and heart disease, you can take steps today to lower your risk.
The Truth About Women and Heart Disease
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women over age 25.
- Five times as many women die from heart disease each year as from breast cancer.
- Of the 200,000 women who die each year from heart attacks, 64 percent may have experienced no prior symptoms.
- Heart attack symptoms in women can differ from those in men. They typically include chest pain or tightness, but women are more likely than men to have shortness of breath, nausea, and pain in their back or jaw.
What to Do Now
Luckily there are many steps a woman can take to lower her chances of developing heart disease.
Kick the Habit: Need yet another reason to stop smoking? Women who smoke are two to four times more likely to develop heart disease than nonsmokers.
Move It: Maintaining a healthy weight is a key to fighting heart disease. Exercising for at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week, helps to maintain a healthy weight and keep your heart strong.
Keep Numbers in Check: Make sure to see your doctor for regular checkups and keep track of important numbers:
- Your “bad” cholesterol (LDL, or low-density lipoprotein) level should be under 129 mg/dL (under 100 is best).
- “Good” cholesterol (HDL, or high-density lipoprotein) should be at or above 50 mg/dL.
- Your blood pressure should be less than 120/80 mmHg.
- Your BMI, or body mass index, should be below 25, and your waist circumference should be less than 35 inches.
Eat Right: Maintain a heart-healthy diet that focuses on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, fish, low-fat or nonfat dairy products and legumes (beans and peas). The American Heart Association recommends that women eat two fish meals weekly, especially salmon or other fatty fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids.
Learn to Relax: Stress and depression have been linked to higher instances of heart disease. Learn ways to deal with stress, and if necessary, get treated for depression.
Educate Yourself: Know your family history. If any member of your immediate family (mother, father, sister, brother) has heart disease or has suffered a heart attack, you are at higher risk and should talk to your doctor about additional precautions.
If you already have heart disease, work with your doctor to develop the best plan for your own situation and for having a healthier heart.