woman having a chest exam

Heart disease the UK's biggest killer. According to the British Heart Foundation (BHF), 20 percent of premature deaths in women in 2009 were from cardiovascular disease (CVD). This deadly yet preventable disease is striking at an alarming rate. Despite education and awareness, many women are still unarmed with the information they need about heart disease.

Heart disease is a disorder of the blood vessels (arteries and veins) that supply the heart with blood. When a vessel is no longer able to supply the heart with oxygen and nutrients, the heart muscle becomes damaged or dies--causing a heart attack. Heart disease is also responsible for most cases of stroke, high blood pressure, and angina (chest pain that isn't a heart attack).

Because the warning signs for heart attacks in women differ so greatly from those in men, symptoms often go undetected. When you think of a heart attack, you may picture an overweight man experiencing a sudden crushing, breath-taking pain. But in fact, women's heart attack symptoms are often more subtle--which can delay proper medical care. Some of the most commonly reported symptoms include:

  • A squeezing or tightening sensation around the bra line
  • Flu-like symptoms for up to a month prior to chest pain
  • Pain that radiates up the neck
  • Pain over one breast that radiates to the back or arm
  • Nausea, sweating, or shortness of breath

Research has shown that while women know that heart disease is the number one killer for their gender, they still fear death from breast cancer more. According to recent research, you may be at high risk for heart disease if you have any one of the following:

  • A history of previous stroke, heart attack, or coronary artery disease
  • Blocked arteries in the legs
  • Diabetes
  • Chronic kidney disease

You are at moderate risk if you:

  • Smoke
  • Have a BMI over 25
  • Eat a poor diet
  • Have a family history of heart disease
  • Have blood pressure over 120/80
  • Have high cholesterol levels
  • Have lupus or rheumatoid arthritis

While modern medicine has presented some highly effective ways of managing heart disease, surgery isn't always enough to "cure" the problem. Heart disease is a lifelong, progressive condition, but you can increase your chances for living a long, active life by making healthy choices:

  • Follow your doctor's guidelines for keeping your blood pressure, weight, and blood sugar under control
  • Eat a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish
  • Limit the amount of salt (sodium) and saturated fat you consume
  • Opt for fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains
  • Exercise regularly
  • If you smoke, make every effort to stop as soon as possible

By recognizing your risk for heart disease and being aware of the symptoms, you can help prevent it. Take the initiative to empower yourself with the tools you need to craft a better life for yourself and your loved ones. For more direction, talk with your doctor about your specific needs and develop a plan to keep yourself on a path of wellness.