Heart Disease & Women

Heart Disease & WomenBy Jacquie Eubanks BSN, RN

According to the National Institute of Health (NIH),  heart disease is the leading cause of death and disability of women in the United States.  Coronary artery disease, a narrowing or blocking of the coronary blood vessels, happens slowly over time and is the major cause of heart failure.

Heart attacks occur when a clot in the coronary artery blocks the flow of blood and oxygen to the heart, causing an irregular and fast heartbeat known as arrhythmia.  If a blockage is not treated, the heart muscle can die within just a few hours. 

It may be a little known fact that more women than men die of heart disease each year.  This is partly caused by the fact that women’s symptoms can differ from the symptoms men generally experience. The most common symptom of a heart attack in women is varying degrees of pain, pressure or discomfort in the chest area.  However, women are more likely to experience other symptoms such as:

  • Discomfort in the neck, shoulder, upper back or abdomen
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Sweating
  • Unusual fatigue

Because these symptoms can be more subtle than the obvious crushing chest pain, many women tend to seek treatment after serious damage has already occurred.  If you experience any of these symptoms, seek immediate emergency assistance. 

The Mayo Clinic describes common risk factors for heart disease for both men and women as high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure and obesity.  However, other key factors that play a role in women’s heart disease are:

  • Metabolic Syndrome,  symptoms of which are a combination of high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar levels and triglycerides and accumulation of abdominal fat. 
  • Mental stress and depression have more of a negative impact on women’s heart health than men’s. 
  • Smoking is a greater risk factor in women.
  • Low estrogen levels after menopause create a significant risk factor for developing cardiovascular disease in smaller blood vessels which tends to affect women more than men.

Women over age 55 have a greater risk of developing the disease.  Although age and family medical history are contributing factors, women of all ages should be concerned about heart health and take steps to prevent the disease.  Lifestyle changes can significantly reduce your risk of debilitating heart disease and early death. 

  • Get regular exercise.  Physical activity is one of the best ways to keep your heart and lungs healthy.
  • Don’t smoke.  If you’ve never started, don’t and if you do, quit now.  Tobacco chemicals harm your blood vessels, cause damage to your heart function and contribute to plaque buildup in your arteries.  Quitting smoking can help reverse heart and blood vessel damage reducing your risk of developing heart disease and your chances of dying from the disease. 
  • Keep blood cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels, blood pressure levels and diabetes under control.
  • Maintain a healthy weight by choosing low fat, low calorie foods, eating smaller portions, drinking lots of water and being physically active. 
  • Take prescribed medications appropriately and accurately. 

Strengthen your healthy diet with heart benefiting supplements. Mimi Guarneri, MD, a cardiologist and founding medical director of the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine in La Jolla, California and author of the book, The Heart Speaks, states that “Supplements can be very beneficial to heart health”.  Some supplements that may benefit your heart are:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids, found to provide significant reductions in triglyceride levels and increase good HDL cholesterol levels. 
  • Plant Sterols that lower harmful LDL cholesterol levels.
  • Niacin, also known as Vitamin B-3, to aid in lowering triglycerides and raising HDL cholesterol. 
  • Psyllium fiber can reduce total LDL cholesterol. 
  • Red Yeast Rice, shown to lower total and LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels and improve blood flow. 
  • Policosanol, a natural plant formula to reduce LDL cholesterol. 

As with all supplements, if you are pregnant, nursing, taking medication or have a medical condition, consult your healthcare provider.

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