According to the American Heart Association (AHA), one in four women living today has some form of cardiovascular disease. Perhaps more concerning is the fact that since 1984, the number of female deaths from heart disease has exceeded that of males.
Only in the last decade have scientists begun to understand the differences in heart disease between men and women. They’ve found that certain risk factors like depression, smoking, and diabetes may be even more dangerous for women.
Standard Modes of Prevention
Several risk factors for heart disease are the same for men and women, including:
- high blood pressure
- high cholesterol
- a family history of the disease
- a sedentary lifestyle
- drinking too much alcohol
Therefore, standard measures of prevention that apply to men also apply to women, such as:
- controlling high blood pressure with medications or lifestyle changes
- keeping cholesterol levels within the recommended range (using medications if necessary)
- exercising for 30 minutes on most days of the week
- eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and cutting back on high-fat, high-sugar, and high-sodium items
- maintaining a healthy weight with a BMI (body mass index) of 25 or less
- maintaining regular checkups with your doctor
- using alcohol in moderation (for women, that means only one drink or less per day)
- adopting coping mechanisms—like meditation, yoga, or simple breathing exercises—that help you deal with stress
Prevention for Women
Women are more susceptible to certain risk factors than men. Therefore, taking steps to reduce these risk factors in particular, in addition to standard modes of prevention, can help you protect the health of your heart.
Studies have suggested that smoking is more dangerous for women than men. For example, a large meta-analysis found that the risk for coronary artery disease was 25 percent higher in women who smoked than in men who smoked. Researchers aren't sure why this is, but they’ve theorized that since nicotine constricts blood vessels and women often have their smaller blood vessels affected by heart disease, smoking presents a larger danger of restricting and blocking those smaller blood vessels.
Get Help for Depression
Research has found that women who exhibit symptoms of depression are more likely to get heart disease. The AHA has recommended that all cardiac patients be screened for the disorder. Women are more than two times likely to suffer from major depression than men. Unfortunately, according to a Mental Health of America survey, nearly half of women who are depressed are too embarrassed to seek treatment.
Prevent or Treat Diabetes
Diabetes increases the risk for heart disease in both men and women, but early research has shown that it does so more for women. In fact, the risk is six times higher for women with diabetes than those without, according to Dr. Marianne Legato from Columbia University. Scientific data also indicate that women with diabetes are more likely to have high blood pressure and unhealthy cholesterol levels than men with diabetes.
Heart disease is also more deadly in women with diabetes, according to a 2007 study published in the European Heart Journal. A 2010 study in Archives of Internal Medicine also noted that depression increases the risk of diabetes and vice versa, which sets women up for a vicious cycle of risk.
Be Your Own Best Advocate
According to research, because they don't often recognize the more subtle symptoms, women often fail to get immediate treatment for heart attacks. In addition, many are still failing to get regular checkups. A 2007 national survey found that less than a third of the women surveyed knew their cholesterol numbers. Add to that the fact that doctors fail to treat them as aggressively as they treat men, and you come up with three major disadvantages for women in conquering this disease.
The best mode of prevention for women, then, is to become your own best health advocate. Following the standard prevention recommendations (such as getting regular exercise and eating a healthy diet), insisting on high blood pressure and cholesterol tests, and becoming more aware of the subtle symptoms of heart attack, can help you prevent heart disease—or at least treat it more successfully if it develops.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends asking your doctor the following questions:
- What is my risk for heart disease?
- What are my blood pressure and cholesterol levels? Do I need to do anything about them?
- How is my weight? Do I need to lose some for my health?
- Am I at risk for diabetes?
- How often should I return for checkups to prevent heart disease?
- Can you help me to quit smoking?
- How much physical activity should I be doing?
- Can you recommend a heart-healthy eating plan for me?
- How can I tell if I'm having a heart attack?