The American Heart Association recommends that women begin undergoing regular heart screenings at age 20, but a survey last year found that 60 percent of women thought screenings didn't need to begin until after age 30.
"Women can begin developing atherosclerosis, plaque in their arteries, in their teens and early 20s," cautions Dr. Carolina Demori, a cardiologist with the Orlando Health Heart Institute. "Therefore, it is vital to understand risk factors and make appropriate life changes as early as possible."
As women age and their estrogen levels decline, their risk of heart disease increases. Estrogen is believed to help keep the artery wall healthy and keep blood vessels flexible. The onset of menopause and the decrease of estrogen can make heart disease symptoms more evident. Hormone replacement therapy is not always recommended, so do your research and talk to your doctor about your risks.
Every year, 215,000 women die from coronary heart disease compared to 41,000 women from breast cancer. Also, unlike breast cancer, heart disease kills quickly and strikes more often. Statistics show that nearly 50 percent of all sudden cardiac deaths occur outside of the hospital, and women account for 39 percent of those fatalities.
According to the American Heart Association, 90 percent of women have one or more risk factors for developing heart disease. Even more sobering: Heart disease and stroke cause 1 in 3 women's deaths each year, killing approximately one woman every 80 seconds.
"A common myth is that heart disease doesn't affect women who are fit," says Dr. Richard Snyder, a family practice physician and chief medical officer at Independence Blue Cross. "But even if you're very athletic, your risk for heart disease isn't 100 percent eliminated." You can be thin and still have major risk factors like high cholesterol and blood sugar issues. Also, lifestyle habits like smoking and poor diet can adversely affect your heart health.
A study published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine says that when compared to their male counterparts, women are more likely to suffer a heart attack that is triggered by emotional stress than by exercise. However, positive psychological attributes such as optimism and supportive relationships are associated with a reduced risk of heart disease.
Some heart disease symptoms in women might be different—and much more subtle—from those in men. While the most common heart attack symptom is some type of pain, pressure or discomfort in the chest, it's not always the most severe or prominent symptom for women. The Mayo Clinic says women are more likely than men to have heart attack symptoms unrelated to chest pain, such as: neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back or abdominal discomfort; shortness of breath; pain in one or both arms; nausea or vomiting; and sweating.
Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease have no previous symptoms, according to the CDC. This underscores the importance of getting your heart checked regularly by your doctor and to report any unusual signs, like extreme fatigue after normal activities.
According to the American Heart Association, 80 percent of heart disease and stroke events might be prevented by lifestyle changes and education. Get serious about your heart health, and use these suggestions from the CDC to keep your ticker healthy for as long as possible: quit smoking; monitor your blood pressure; discuss diabetes testing with your doctor; check your cholesterol and triglycerides; limit alcohol intake to one drink a day; and lower your stress level by finding healthy ways to cope with stress.
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