The leading cause of death for women in the U.S. is cardiovascular disease – outnumbering the next 16 causes of death in women combined, including all cancers. Yet prevention and treatment for women are still less aggressive than for men. We need to change this.
We cannot help but wonder if the added stress of the COVID pandemic will be shown in the future to have weighed more heavily on women – especially for women with children still living at home. But that remains to be seen.
What we know now are that women and the medical profession both have roles to play in helping prevent and address cardiovascular disease.
What you can do
If you smoke, you need to quit. Cigarette smoking is the leading preventable cause of coronary artery disease in women. More than 60 percent of heart attacks in women under age 50 can be attributed to tobacco use. Smoking is also more damaging to women than men – increasing their risk of a heart attack by six times, whereas in men, it’s three times. The good news is that quitting smoking begins to reduce your risk of having a heart attack in only two months and two years later, it’s decreased by a third! If you need help quitting, talk to your primary care provider.
Be more active. Thirty to 45 minutes of walking three times a week reduces your risk of a heart attack by half – even in older women. Being more active also decreases your risk of diabetes, and helps manage weight, blood pressure and cholesterol.
Lose or maintain your weight. Obesity puts you at a higher risk for developing diabetes, heart and vascular disease and certain cancers. Being more active can help you lose or better manage your weight, but it’s also important to eat more plant-based foods like vegetables, fruit and whole grains. Click here for ideas on how to eat healthy. [link to one of the recent nutritionist’s blogs.]
If you have diabetes, get your numbers under control. Being more active and making healthy food choices certainly help with managing blood sugar readings. You’ll also want to get adequate sleep and manage your stress. If you can’t bring your numbers into an acceptable range, be sure to talk to your provider.
Address issues of stress or depression. How we’re coping affects our bodies. Stress, anger and depression have a demonstrated affect on our heart and vascular systems. But so do relaxation, joy and laughter. If you are struggling, reach out to someone – a counselor, your pastor, a friend or family member, your primary care provider.
The bottom line for women is that self-care matters. Taking care of yourself is important to reduce your risk of heart and vascular disease. But in doing so, many of these same actions will help you to feel better, stronger and more vibrant.
How your primary care provider can help
In addition to providing support for the self-care addressed above, your provider can help in the following ways:
Tracking your risk factors. The file your provider has on you should include your body mass index (BMI), whether you’ve ever smoked, your blood pressure and your cholesterol – as well as any other risk factors, such as family history of heart or vascular disease, diabetes, depression, etc.
Determining if you should be on aspirin or a lipid-lowering medication. Women are less likely to be on these than men – but they may need this just as much. Ask your provider if these could be beneficial in your case.
Call 9-1-1 if you are having symptoms of a heart attack or stroke. Don’t wait. The hospital’s emergency department is the safest place for you if you are having these symptoms. Every precaution is taken to isolate COVID patients. Receiving timely intervention is critical since women are at higher risk of dying from their first heart attack than men and are more likely to have a long-term disability. Be sure that you and all the members of your household are familiar with the signs of a heart attack and stroke. [link to these].
Finally, if you do survive a heart attack, do everything you can to prevent another one. This includes taking advantage of cardiac rehabilitation, taking medication prescribed by your cardiologist and making the necessary lifestyle changes to strengthen your heart and vascular system. Fewer women than men complete cardiac rehabilitation, which has been proven to significantly reduce the risk of another heart attack.
In short, reducing the number of deaths in women related to heart disease requires a stronger partnership between women and their healthcare providers. We cardiologists continue to encourage women to find inspiration for their health journeys in the faces of their loved ones – who give all of us, when we stop and reflect, the motivation to live longer, healthier lives.
Abdul Basit, MD, FACP, FACC, FSCAI, is an interventional cardiologist at Goshen Heart & Vascular Center. He is fellowship trained in cardiovascular medicine and interventional cardiology. He has conducted research on women and heart disease. This blog was adapted from a presentation he gave to medical staff at Goshen Health in 2019.