Women and Heart Disease

February 12, 2003

The adage "what you don't know can't hurt you" can have deadly consequences for women at risk for heart disease. A 2001 poll of 1,004 women by the American Heart Association found only one woman in 10 believed she was at risk for heart disease and 62 percent mistakenly identified cancer as the biggest threat to their health. In fact, heart disease claims the life of one of every two women and is the leading cause of death in women age 35 and older.
"Cancer -- and in particular breast cancer -- gets a lot of media attention and funding, but women actually are 15 times more likely to die of heart disease than of breast cancer," says Dr. Michael Attas, a Waco cardiologist and director of Baylor's Medical Humanities Program. 
Smoking, obesity, a sedentary lifestyle and high cholesterol place women at risk, as do medical conditions such as hypertension and diabetes. Having a close relative who developed heart disease at an early age -- before age 50 in males, 60 in females -- adds to the risk.
Although men often exhibit the classic signs of chest pain extending to the jaw or down one arm, women are more likely to have back or upper abdominal discomfort, dizziness and shortness of breath. These atypical symptoms are less likely to be recognized as those of a heart attack by women and their physicians and may be one reason heart disease is diagnosed at a later stage in women, Dr. Attas says. The diagnosis may be complicated further because standard tests of cardiac function such as EKGs and treadmill often are not as accurate in women.
"The most important actions women can take to reduce their risk are to maintain optimal body weight and stop smoking," Dr. Attas says. Regular exercise and eating a diet low in saturated fat are other heart-healthy habits. He also cautions men and women not to begin an exercise program without consulting a physician. 
For more information about heart disease in women, call a local chapter of the American Heart Association or visit it online at goredforwomen.org.