Heart disease kills ‘one woman a minute,’ Kansas experts warn
10 Heart Tips for Women
1. Eat a healthy diet
Cardiology experts say women (and men) can prevent the onset of heart disease by consuming a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grain and lean protein and low in sodium and trans and saturated fat. Beans and oily fish such as salmon and trout can also reduce the risk of a heart attack.
2. Don't smoke
Cigarette smoking is one of the top causes of heart disease, as chemicals in tobacco narrow the arteries, ultimately leading to heart attacks. Quitting smoking significantly reduces that risk.
Lack of physical activity is a major cause of heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends people get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week.
4. Cut down on stress
Ninety percent of stress-induced cardiomyopathy cases occur in women, mostly after menopause, said Ashley Simmons, medical director of the women's heart health center at Kansas University Hospital. Stress is also a leading risk factor for heart disease overall.
5. Get a heart health risk assessment
Women of any age can get a heart health risk assessment to determine their likelihood for heart disease and what they can do to prevent its onset. The assessments look at things like blood pressure, waist circumference, body mass index and nutrition and exercise. Locally, Lawrence Memorial Hospital recently began offering Take Heart heart assessments.
6. Monitor lab work
Get your blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked regularly, as they are a common predictor of future heart problems. Women should pay extra close attention to blood sugar and triglyceride levels, as women who are diabetic or have high triglycerides are at a greater risk for heart disease than men with those same risk factors, said Christina Salazar, a cardiologist at Lawrence Memorial Hospital.
7. Take advantage of cardiac rehabilitation after a heart attack or surgery
Cardiac rehabilitation can help women who have had a heart attack or surgery reduce the chances of recurrence. During these courses, patients exercise, learn about healthy eating, get emotional support and undergo medication counseling, among other activities. Women, however, tend to enroll in cardiac rehabilitation at a lower rate than men, Simmons said.
8. Recognize the symptoms
When women have heart attacks, they are more likely than men to present vague symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, upset stomach, and head, neck and jaw pain.
9. Be aware of the facts
Heart disease is the leading killer of women (and men) in America, and ultimately claims the life of 1 in 3 women (or roughly one a minute). Still, in a 2012 American Heart Association study, only 56 percent of women identified heart disease as the No. 1 cause of death among females.
10. Know your family history
Having relatives with a history of heart disease greatly increases your risk of developing it. If you have a family history of heart problems, tell your health care provider.
Lawrence Jodi Jackson was only 42 years old when she suffered a widow-maker. The type of heart attack got that name due to its high mortality rate, but also because heart disease has long been assumed to be a man's problem. The Eudora woman wants to change that.
"Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women," said Jackson, who now travels the region speaking to women about the importance of heart health. "It kills 1 in 3 women, or about one woman a minute in the United States."
Jackson is one of the lucky ones. Nationwide, women have a higher mortality rate from heart attacks than men, in part because they often display different symptoms. Jackson, for instance, was suffering from jaw pain, headaches, indigestion — not typically thought of as heart attack indicators, though they are for women. She did call an ambulance, but if she hadn't been home alone — who knows?
"If I had anybody else there, I could have convinced them to talk me out of going to the hospital," said Jackson, who, with her husband, has five children and one grandchild. "The doctor that I saw said that, 'If you had laid down, you would not have gotten up.'"
February is heart health month in America, and local doctors and advocacy groups have made it a priority to raise awareness about the dangers of heart disease in women.
At Lawrence Memorial Hospital, two new cardiologists have lately been on a mission to encourage women to look after their heart health. Elizabeth Guastello and Christina Salazar began in September and have since started Take Heart, a heart-risk assessment program designed specifically for women.
While risk factors are the same for men and women — high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, family history — women with diabetes and high triglycerides are at a greater risk for heart disease than men with similar health conditions. They are also more apt to become obese after menopause.
The real difference, however, comes in the symptoms.
Both men and women get pain in the chest and arm to signify an oncoming heart attack, but women are more likely to present more general symptoms, like nausea, neck pain and fatigue.
"Our symptoms can be more vague, so we sit on the symptoms longer and don't seek help," Guastello said. "We don't go to an emergency room. We wait until Monday to get in with our doctor.
"With a disease where time is of the essence — a heart attack — we sit and wait."
Guastello and Salazar also hope to increase the number of female cardiologists, by, if nothing else, being role models to younger women. About 10 percent of practicing cardiologists are female, including only about a dozen in Kansas, Salazar noted.
"Typically people thought of cardiology as a field that's not easy for a woman who's married or has kids or a husband who's working," she said. "You can make a path that fits your lifestyle, no matter what field you choose. You don't have to work 80 hours a week to do what you want."
Awareness about women's heart health does appear to be spreading. Fifty-six percent of women now recognize heart disease as the leading cause of death among women, up from 30 percent in 1997, according to the American Heart Association.
The disease was long considered a man's illness because premenopausal women rarely got it, said Ashley Simmons, medical director of the women's heart health center at Kansas University Hospital. Now, with the increase in obesity and diabetes in America, more younger women are contracting heart disease. It has also often been overshadowed by breast cancer, the awareness of which has been spread remarkably by groups like Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
"Most women think of heart disease as a man's disease or are more afraid of breast cancer or another cancer," Simmons said. "In reality, heart disease kills more women than all cancers combined."
She said women also tend to enroll in cardiac rehabilitation at a lower rate than men, leaving them susceptible to further heart problems, particularly after surgery.
One thing about heart disease, however, remains the same no matter your sex: how to prevent it. That can be done by exercising, not smoking and eating a healthy diet.
Six weeks before the heart attack that almost killed her, Jackson had a physical at which she received a clean bill of health. She had no family history of heart problems. Instead, her attack was caused by a sudden plaque breakage, after which blood raced to the heart and clotted, blocking an artery.
Still, Jackson has since gone vegan and started exercising. She has no residual pain, though she will have to take cardiac medicine for the rest of her life.
While she'll continue to be vigilant about her own heart health, she can understand how other women often overlook it. It's one reason she's now a dedicated activist.
"Women are multi-taskers. They're fixing dinner and getting homework done, and they start to not feel good. So they'll say, 'Maybe I'll get to it after I'm done with this.' They don't slow down and pay attention to the symptoms they're having," she said.
"Women are often the primary caretaker and make sure everyone around them is doing OK, and they don't take care of themselves."