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Women and heart disease: getting to the heart of the matter

February 6, 2012
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Heart disease is the number one killer of American women — no matter what their race or ethnicity. An estimated 42 million American women live with cardiovascular disease and one in three women die of heart disease. By contrast,1 in30 dies of breast cancer. The month of February kicks off American Heart Month. In 1963, Congress required the president to proclaim February “American Heart Month” to raise awareness and elevate the cause of women and heart disease. Estes Park Medical Center employees are raising awareness of women and heart disease by wearing red on Feb. 3.

Heart disease doesn’t just result in death. It can also damage your heart — and your life. It can interfere with your activities and even limit your ability to do everyday things. If it’s not treated, heart disease can lead to serious complications. These complications include angina, which is chest pain, heart failure, in which your heart loses its ability to function well, and heart attack. About two-thirds of the women who have a heart attack don’t make a full recovery. The simple fact is that many women do not recognize heart disease as their leading health threat. Heart disease is a “now” problem; later may be too late.

Heart disease develops over many years. The process is called atherosclerosis. What happens is that plaques, or fatty substances, build up in the walls of blood vessels. This process can happen anywhere in the body, but in heart disease, it happens in the coronary arteries of the heart. The plaque buildup narrows the arteries. The plaque can rupture and cause a blood clot to form. This further narrows the artery and the process repeats itself. Over time, the artery gets narrower and narrower, and reduces the blood flow. This buildup of plaque inside the arteries will continue to worsen unless it is treated. It is crucial to realize that there is no quick fix for heart disease.

The good news is that heart disease can be prevented or controlled by making lifestyle changes. It is important for all women to take steps to protect their heart health. Taking action is particularly important if you are 40 and older. From age 40 to 60, the risk of heart disease starts to go up. During these years, many women develop one or more of the risk factors for heart disease.

These risk factors include:

smoking

high blood pressure

high blood cholesterol

overweight and obesity

physical inactivity

diabetes

family history of early heart disease

age, which for women is 55 and older.

Fortunately, women can prevent or control most of the risk factors. The only risks women can’t control are age and family history. However, no matter your age, or how many risk factors you have, it is never too late to improve your heart health. Prevention is important: two-thirds of women who have a heart attack fail to make a full recovery.

Like men, the most common heart attack symptom for women is pain or discomfort in the chest. However, women can also have a heart attack without having any chest pain. Some of the other symptoms women might experience include:

feeling out of breath

pain that runs along the neck, jaw, or upper back

nausea, vomiting or indigestion

unexplained sweating

sudden or overwhelming fatigue

dizziness.

HeartCenterof the Rockies provides cardiac care throughEstesParkMedicalCenter’s Specialty Clinic. Dr. Wendy Austin, who specializes in cardiac care for women, says, “There is still a lot of misperception about who is at risk for heart disease. The fact is: heart disease is not a man’s disease. It affects women and men equally and by the time we reach age 80, 85 percent will have it. There is a lot you can do to take action and make lifestyle changes that prevent or delay the development of heart disease. Review with your physician the known risk factors (high blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes) that predispose to heart disease and make sure that, if present, all are well-controlled. Even if you already have heart disease, the risk of future complications can be decreased through medications and heart healthy living.”

Learn the signs, but remember this: even if you’re not sure it’s a heart attack, have it checked out. Minutes matter. Fast action can save lives — maybe your own. Don’t wait more than five minutes to call9-1-1. Calling 9-1-1 is almost always the fastest way to get lifesaving treatment. Emergency medical services staff can begin treatment when they arrive — up to an hour sooner than if someone gets to the hospital by car.

A woman’s risk of heart disease is serious. Take action to protect your heart. Take a moment, close your eyes and put your hand on your heart. Think about its beat and how it is pumping blood to all parts of your body every second of every day. The power of your life is in your hands. That’s how important your heart is to you.

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