Heart Disease: The Number One Killer in Women

Health Professional

In the United States one woman dies every minute from a cardiovascular event. Yet coronary heart disease is still considered by many as a "man's disease."

Many women are actually unaware that coronary heart disease is the main killer among women over the age of 65; with their biggest fear usually being breast cancer. Women do appear to develop the heart disease 7-8 years later than men, but by the age of 65 a woman's risk is almost the same as a man's.

Reality check:

  • 1 in 4 women in the United States die from heart disease, while 1 in 30 die from breast cancer.
  • 23% of women will die within 1-year of having a heart attack.
  • Within 6 years of having a heart attack, about 46% of women become disabled with heart failure.
  • 2/3 of women who have a heart attack fail to make a full recovery.

The good news is that all women can take steps to lower their risk of developing heart disease. If you're a woman aged between 40-60, it's particularly important that you immediately begin taking steps to lower your risk.

Risk factors for heart disease in women:

  • Being 55 or older - as women grow older, their risk of heart disease and stroke increases, and keeps rising with age.
  • Having a family history of coronary artery disease before the age of 60.
  • Having a previous heart attack, stroke or transient ischemic attack ("mini-stroke")
  • Being post-menopausal, or having your ovaries removed.
  • Having high blood pressure.
  • Having a high total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, or triglyceride level, and/or reduced HDL cholesterol.
  • Having diabetes.
  • Being obese or overweight.
  • Being physically inactivity.
  • Being a smoker.

What symptoms should women look out for?

Women tend to have more atypical symptoms than men, these include

  • Pain in the shoulders, or between the shoulder blades.
  • GI symptoms - nausea, abdominal discomfort, vomiting or an upset stomach.
  • Back pain.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Burning in the chest area.
  • Fatigue.

The symptoms above are not exclusive to women, with some men also experiencing similar symptoms. There are also a number of women who experience the classic chest pain symptoms. Therefore, it is important to prepare yourself by being familiar with the classic symptoms, and the less common symptoms as well.

Following a healthy lifestyle

Research shows that women can lower their heart disease risk by as much as 82% simply by leading a healthy lifestyle.

The "Guidelines for Preventing Cardiovascular Disease in Women" were produced in 2007. Some of the advice includes:

  • Lifestyle changes to help lower blood pressure, including weight control, increased physical activity, alcohol moderation, sodium restriction, increased intake of fresh fruits, vegetables, and eating low-fat dairy products.
  • Try to quit smoking by receiving counselling, nicotine replacement, or other forms of smoking cessation therapy, if necessary.
  • Minimum of 60-90 minutes of moderate-intensity activity (for example, brisk walking) most days of the week for women who need to lose weight, or sustain weight loss.
  • All women should reduce their intake of saturated fats to less than 7% of calories, if possible.
  • Eat oily fish at least twice a week, and consider taking a capsule supplement of 850-1000 mg of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) if you already have heart disease. 2-4 grams is recommended for women with high triglycerides.

On February 1st, 2008 you can encourage those around you to take action to control their risk factors for heart disease by participating in the National Wear Red Day.

Melanie Thomassian is a dietician, and author of Dietriffic.com, an online resource for credible dietary advice, exercise tips, and much more