Women with risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and a family history, should start a dialogue with their primary care physician in their 40s so they can begin a prevention regimen that will keep them healthy.
"Women have such a low prevalence of the disease until menopause that I feel many physicians ignore heart disease in women until they are well into their 50s and 60s," said Karla Kurrelmeyer, M.D., a cardiologist with Houston Methodist DeBakey Heart & Vascular Center. "Women with risk factors need to be 10 years ahead of the game when it comes to prevention, but unfortunately, too many are already in the game before they are tested."
Kurrelmeyer says talking to their doctors about a family history is very important for women, especially if a family member died of the disease at a young age. She adds they should also have their blood pressure and cholesterol monitored regularly, develop an exercise and nutrition plan, and, if they are a smoker, stop smoking. By age 50, they should start seeing a cardiologist.
"At that time we can begin performing heart scans, assessing their risk based on genetics, and take the necessary actions to keep them on the right track," Kurrelmeyer said. "Women with the aforementioned risks for heart disease should treat this like they do a mammogram and be checked at least once a year."
A recent survey published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that nearly half of the women in the United States do not know that heart disease is the leading cause of death in women. In addition, 74 percent of the women surveyed had at least one heart disease risk factor, but only 16 percent told their doctor about it.
The survey also pointed out that only 22 percent of primary care physicians felt prepared to assess a woman's risk for heart disease. Kurrelmeyer says if a doctor is not comfortable, ask to be referred to a cardiologist.
It is important to know that heart problems in women are not as recognizable as they are in men. Some of the symptoms for women include:
- Extreme weakness, anxiety, or shortness of breath.
- Discomfort, pressure, heaviness or pain in the chest, arm, below the breastbone or in the middle of the back.
- Sweating, nausea, vomiting, dizziness.
- Fullness, indigestion, a tightness in the throat area.
- Rapid or irregular heartbeats.
"The myth that heart disease is a man's disease is just that, a myth. The time is now for women to realize that they can fall victim," Kurrelmeyer said. "If a woman can get years ahead of the disease, she gives herself a much better chance of beating it."
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