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Women, You're Not Immune to Heart Disease

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Recently I received an email about the Go Red for Women Campaign from the American Heart Association. Reading through the information, I was shocked to discover that more women die from heart disease (heart attacks, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases) than the next FIVE leading causes of death combined, including breast cancer. This in an age where early intervention is the difference between life and death.

A little less than 5 years ago, at the age of 42, I was diagnosed with hypertension, high cholesterol levels, and high triglycerides. My doctor prescribed an anti-hypertensive and urged me to lose weight. Fortunately my hypertension responded to the medication, which told me at the time that really I didn't need to lose weight because my high blood pressure was being managed. Every three months I would reluctantly head back to her office for my follow-up exam only to hear the pleas for me get my weight down and work in some physical activity.

It took 12 months, and no longer able being to wear my favorite pants, for me to hear my own wake-up call. I am a firm believer that education is crucial to understanding how to transform one's life. I started reading everything I could about how to change the path that I was on. As I researched this topic, I uncovered some shocking information.

So why is heart disease so deadly for women?

For one thing, women’s symptoms can be quite different from a man's. We all have seen the medical drama where a man is depicted with classic symptoms of a heart attack--complaints of chest pains, pain in the jaw, pain radiating down the left arm, shortness of breath and breaking out in a cold sweat--only to be rushed to the ER to be saved.

The same CANNOT be said for women. Their symptoms are less characteristic in nature and many of the symptoms can be related to many other medical conditions.

They include:

  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty in sleeping
  • Shortness of breath
  • Indigestion/stomach issues
  • Anxiety or a feeling of impending doom.

Because these warning signs are not the classic heart attack symptoms many of us have come to know, many health care providers fail to diagnose a heart attack or cardiovascular disease in woman who presents to the ER with these signs. Hopefully, with all the new advances in women’s health issues this trend is changing.

So what can we, as women, do to prevent developing cardiovascular disease?

  • Don’t smoke! Smoking is a major cause of not only heart disease but lung disease as well.
  • Diet is definitely an area in which we all should monitor closely. Eating more fruits and veggies, less saturated fats, checking labels for ‘trans fats’ (AKA partially hydrogenated oils), eating fish and nuts, which contain the healthy monounsaturated/polyunsaturated fats, and reducing sodium intake are all means to preventing or slowing progression of heart disease.
  • Getting in adequate amounts of cardio and strength training activity is another means. Something as simple as 30 minute brisk walk 5-6 days a week and strength training 2 times a week, will get you well on the path to a healthier you. As with every exercise program, it is best to get clearance from your doctor prior to engaging any activity, especially if you currently are under medical supervision.
  • Managing stress is another area many of us need to manage better. This is where exercise helps me the most. When life gets just a little too overwhelming, going for a nice run or walk helps me cope just a tad better to these obstacles.
  • Managing your hypertension in conjunction with your health care provider is also important. Make sure you are taking your medication as prescribed and follow up with your doctor is crucial, as well as keeping communication between doc and patient opened.

    PLEASE do NOT hesitate to go to the ER if you experience any symptom that is new to you. It is ALWAYS better to err on the side of caution. If you would like to know your risk for heart disease, please visit the Women’s Heart Foundation website and take the quiz.

    Almost 5 years later, I still must take an anti-hypertensive to manage my high blood pressure; however, I was able to lower my total blood cholesterol levels to the excellent range, drop my triglycerides to the excellent range, lower my waist to hip ratio, and keep my blood glucose stable, all with a sound nutrition and exercise while learning how to deal with the stress in my life.

    Do you suffer from heart disease? What measures do you take to prevent or slow progression of this disease? Do you believe women are often misdiagnosed or seen as ‘being too stressed’ when they present to the ER with vague symptoms?

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If you suffer from HBP and are obese, I strongly recommend losing some weight. About 3 years ago, I finally listened to my doctor's plea for me to start losing some weight. I was on HBP medicine and obese. After losing about 25 pounds, I was able to come off my medicine and as I continue to lose weight and exercise, my BP is in the normal range. If you are obese and want to come off the medicine, I strongly recommend losing weight and execising on a regular basis, it may help you manage your HBP without medicine. Now not everyone is fortunate enough to come off medicine but if there is the chance that you could be medicine free, isn't it worth giving it a try.
We have a blood pressure and Cholestral in our family so I am at high risk especially since I'm also obese. Report
Heart Disease runs in my family. This article also reminds me that a risk factor for heart disease is family history of heart disease. Both my parents, grandparents aunts and uncles have high blood pressure. My dad died of a heart attach related to congestive heart failure. My mom has high blood pressure. I've had borderline high blood pressure. Exercise and diet are keeping my pressure under control, as well as my stress. I've said 'no' to many things and 'goodbye' to some unhealthy habits in order to continue to maintain a lower stress level. It's not always easy, but it is essential in order to live a longer, healthier life! I'm working on my weight and continue to incorporate more exercise in my lifestyle. My family is supportive and 'on board' with the program! Hallelujah! The battle is half won! I want to see grandchildren in my life, as well as smaller clothes, more endurance and strength. Report
This is why I'm on Spark! In 2007 I had to have a quintuple (yes, 5 grafts) cardiac bypass. I'm very fortunuate I didn't end up a statistic... Trying to keep the story brief, I had no real symptoms except for fatigue, but I worked 2 jobs, one very stressful, as a single mom of 3 kids. So I wasn't concerned about a little fatigue, 12-14 hour workdays will do that to you. I did have risk factors in 14 years worth of diabetes, fairly well controlled, and a family history of heart disease, and overweight. But, I'd lost 50 pounds early in my diabetic life, and through the use of medications and diet, kept the blood sugars fairly stable. I'd even had a stress test that was normal.

Then, in March of that year, my "healthy" (he exercised 2 hours a day, no smoking, no drinking, no overweight, he's a priest!) brother had a heart attack. Fortunately, a stint was put in, he was fine. But when I saw my doctor a couple of weeks later, he asked for another stress test as having a sibling with heart disease really increases your risk. Again, mostly okay, but a funny "blip" at the end of the stress test, coupled with my fatigue prompted an angiogram so they could look at the inside of my arteries... Imagine my shock when the cardiologist met with me and told me to clear the decks for a cardiac bypass in the next few days. They had planned a triple, but when they got in, had to do 5 grafts on the main artery, which was almost completely blocked.

The good news? I was literally days or weeks away from having what would have probably been a major heart attack, and I had no symptoms, but just assorted risk factors! This forced my doctors and myself to get really serious about the diabetes, first, changing me to insulin so that I have great, not adequate control of the blood sugars, then to send me to cardiac rehab in the recovery process. And that has changed my life. After working with the physical therapists and nurse practicioners in cardiac rehab, I started with 5 minutes at a time on the treadmill, worked my way, literally, a minute more at a time, until they dismissed me, able to do 20 minutes at a time. From there, I joined a gym when the doctors released me to do so, in January of 2008, and joined Spark at the same time. I now do 45 minutes a day of cardio, walk more than 10,000 steps a day in my daily routine, and have added a strength training routine 2-3 days a week. I've lost another 20 pounds, and although I'm still not thin, my blood sugars and cholesterol are within the normal limits, my energy level is good, and I lead a very active lifestyle with strength and vitality.

Sorry this so long, but this is one of my huge agendas.... all my women friends worry about breast cancer and many have changed their lifestyles to help minimize their risks, but when I talk about heart health for women, I find that most have never even discussed their heart with their doctors, much less been screened, despite risk factors.

So, take care of your heart! Talk to your doctor, add exercise at the doctor's approval, know your numbers (blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol), and live long and healthy!
Evelyn Report
Great article. I don't personally suffer from heart disease however I have a family history of the disease. For this reason, I do not smoke or drink alcohol at all and I monitor my blood pressure and colesteral which are good. I do have a weight issue and that is why I'm Sparking to get this under control. I'm learning to eat healthy, getting excercise, and eliminating bad habits so that I can be an example for my family and hopfully break this family history of heart disease. Report
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