The differences between men and women extend to matters of the heart, and we don’t mean how they “feel” about each other. Heart disease risks, symptoms and treatments can all be different for women, explains Melissa Daubert, MD, a Duke cardiologist dedicated to helping women manage their risk. Here, she explains why women need to be proactive about their heart health.
How Serious Is Heart Disease in Women?
Approximately 44 million women in the U.S. experience some form of heart disease; it's the number one killer in women. We need to focus on prevention in order to change those statistics. Our dedicated women’s heart clinic offers expert advice and guidance to women who want to become more invested in their heart health.
How Does Heart Disease Affect Women Differently than Men?
There are several ways. First, heart attacks present differently in women than in men. Instead of the typical, crushing pain that men experience, women are more likely to complain of intermittent pressure on their chest and abdominal pain. Second, clots that cause heart attacks may occur differently in women than men. That is an important distinction to know when we bring women into the catheterization lab to open blocked arteries. In women, we don’t always see obvious blockages. It doesn’t mean they don’t have one, but there is a difference in the way plaque ruptures in women than it does in men. Finally, we are seeing poorer risk control in women. Diabetes and obesity are the primary risk factors contributing to heart disease in women.
What Are Less-Obvious Risk Factors that Can Affect a Woman’s Heart Health?
Pregnancy health is a good example. While traditional risk factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and a family history of heart disease, we are learning that certain complications of pregnancy, including high blood pressure and gestational diabetes, can increase your risk for heart disease later in life. Additionally, there is increasing evidence that mental stress may tax women’s hearts differently than men. In our clinic, we focus on these non-traditional risk factors.
Do Women Really Need a Special Clinic for Their Heart Disease?
Cardiologists who specialize in women’s heart care are knowledgeable about heart disease risk factors that are unique to women and are aware that women respond to certain cardiac treatments differently from men. Our cardiologists have dedicated their research and patient care to women and heart disease. We help women who may already heart disease, or have been diagnosed with one or more risk factors for heart disease. We optimize their treatment plans to prevent them from having another event, and teach them to practice lifestyle habits that keep their heart healthy now and in the future.
What Are Some Easy Ways Women Can Lower Their Risk for Heart Disease?
Lifestyle modifications make a big impact. We recommend women engage in at least 2.5 hours of moderately vigorous activity, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity every week. Dietary changes are also important. Finally, women should be proactive. Good heart health starts with an awareness of your risk. New research shows that even mild elevations in cholesterol and blood pressure levels are putting people at risk for heart disease. Regular check ups, and aggressively treating risk factors early can prevent heart disease later in life.