Duke Medicine HealthLine
Published: Feb. 16, 2007
Updated: Apr. 16, 2010
February is the official awareness month for heart disease. But women need to have heart health on their minds year round -- their lives depend on it.
For those who think cancer is the biggest threat to women’s health, consider this news from the American Heart Association: nearly twice as many women in the United States die of heart disease and stroke as from all forms of cancer, including breast cancer.
“Heart disease is a woman’s greatest health risk, and it is far underappreciated,” says Radha Kachhy, MD, a cardiologist at Duke Raleigh Hospital.
She speculates that many still consider heart disease to be something of a boy’s club, because women are usually older than men when their symptoms become noticeable. Though heart disease begins decades before its effects are felt, women of any age can take steps to reduce their risk and live longer, fuller lives.
Every woman has a unique genetic history, physiology, and risk profile for heart disease. But regardless of individual susceptibility, there are some classic, undisputed risk factors that every woman should monitor.
Chest pain is the number-one sign of a heart attack for both men and women. But there are many other symptoms that are reported more commonly among women than among men, and any combination of the following could foreshadow a heart attack:
In the absence of chest pain, how do you know when these symptoms are those of a life-threatening situation or those of, say, the flu? Kachhy says that heart attacks usually present a constellation of these symptoms -- in other words, nausea and sweating accompanied by shortness of breath; jaw or arm pain accompanied by dizziness and sweating; or another combination.
According to Kachhy, women have a tendency to “explain their symptoms away,” or put off addressing the warning signs of heart disease with the idea that they’ll ask about them at the next exam.
She advises always to err on the side of caution -- if you experience more than one of these symptoms, particularly if they are severe and especially if they are associated with difficulty in breathing or feeling faint, seek medical help immediately.
Research shows a clear association between metabolic syndrome and risk of heart disease. Often called Syndrome X, this unhappy checklist applies to more than 50 million Americans:
Although metabolic syndrome is frequently linked to type-2 diabetes, not all people with type-2 diabetes fit the criteria for metabolic syndrome. Those who have metabolic syndrome and type-2 diabetes, however, are at exceptionally high risk for heart disease.