Heart disease is the leading cause of death among women yet awareness is still low. Although most women are more fearful of breast cancer, heart disease remains the bigger threat. “One in three women dies from heart disease, whereas one in thirty women dies of breast cancer,” says Marion Hogan, M.D., F.A.C.C., Cardiologist at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School.
Heart disease refers to several different diseases that affect the heart and blood vessels and includes coronary artery disease, which is the most common form of heart disease. Coronary artery disease develops over time, slowly narrowing the arteries with plaque and reducing blood flow. Eventually, when plaque closes an artery, a heart attack can occur.
Dr. Hogan says all women should be aware of the warning signs of a heart attack, which include:
Every woman should consider herself at risk for heart disease. However, some women should recognize they are at an even higher risk and should aggressively fight this deadly disease. Risk factors that are uncontrollable include having a family history of heart disease and older age. In women, the risk of heart disease starts to rise between ages 40 and 60. Some risk factors are controllable and include:
“These risk factors don’t just add together to increase your risk, they multiply your risk,” says Dr. Hogan. “For example, being overweight not only increases your chance of developing heart disease, it also increases your chance of developing high blood pressure, which is another risk factor for heart disease. Each risk can affect each other and put you at an extremely high risk.”
Although the risk for heart disease increases in women between ages 40 and 60, Dr. Hogan expresses the importance of preventing heart disease and practicing a heart healthy lifestyle at all ages because damage can begin as early as adolescence. “Even if you have heart disease, maintaining good heart health can improve your quality of life and strengthen your heart,” says Dr. Hogan.
Getting proactive and aggressive about achieving and maintaining a healthy heart not only reduces a woman’s risk for heart disease, but can also reduce her risk for several cancers and improves her overall quality of life. “Women should start by discussing heart disease with their obstetrician and gynecologist or primary care physician,” says Dr. Hogan. “Their doctor can give them a better idea of what their risk is and what can be done to lower it. They can measure blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar.”
Dr. Hogan recommends a heart-healthy diet that is low in cholesterol, has limited alcohol and is low in salt. “Switching white bread, rice and pasta to whole grains has proven to be beneficial not only for your weight, but also for your heart,” says Dr. Hogan. Combining a healthy diet with 30 minutes of moderate exercise, such as walking most days of the week, can make a strong impact on a woman’s overall health.
Many women are setting the stage for future generations that look up to them. Now is the time to show themselves and others how to live a lifestyle that can help prevent deadly diseases. “The biggest message women should take away is to begin getting heart healthy today – don’t worry about yesterday. Every meal and every day are new opportunities,” says Dr. Hogan.
To schedule an appointment with one of Mount Auburn Hospital’s cardiac specialists, call 617-499-5094.