It’s high time for women to have a heart-to-heart about heart disease.
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For decades, most everyone thought it was something that primarily happened to men. We now know that’s not true — heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the U.S.
But how much do you really know about heart disease? And how can you protect yourself?
We talked with cardiologist Leslie Cho, MD, Director of the Women’s Cardiovascular Center, about what women need to know — and what actions they can take to improve their heart health.
Q: What’s the most important thing women should know about heart disease?
A: The No. 1 thing I want women to know is that heart disease is preventable.
A lot of people can completely prevent heart disease just by living well. And if they can’t, there’s medication that can help. We’re lucky to live in an era where medicine can lower your risk.
But the thing is, we don’t know what your risk is if you don’t get it checked. So that’s the most important step in preventing heart disease: seeing your doctor.
Q: Why did it take so long to recognize the dangers of heart disease for women?
A: Originally, research wasn’t done on women. The mortality rate for women with heart disease wasn’t going down like men’s was, and people started to ask why.
One of the main reasons was that not only physicians ― but also patients ― had a lack of awareness about how heart disease affects women.
That’s why the American Heart Association started the Go Red for Women campaign. It’s been very successful in spreading the message to both physicians as well as women.
Q: Do you think women are paying enough attention to their heart health?
It’s only during menopause that most women start thinking about heart health — but that’s not when heart disease begins.
Women need to be proactive about their heart health starting in their 20s. You should get your cholesterol checked at age 20 and then every five years, or annually if you have other risk factors.
Monitor your blood pressure. Make sure your weight is in a healthy range. Follow a heart healthy diet and get plenty of exercise.
Q: Is it true that women’s heart attack symptoms are typically different from men’s?
A: Actually, 70% of women have the exact same symptoms as men. There are a lot of misconceptions that women always have different symptoms, and that’s not true.
In fact, 30% of women have more atypical symptoms, like fatigue, shortness of breath without chest pain, or nausea. But the majority of women have the same symptoms as men.
Q: Is it true that women who are having heart attacks are often misdiagnosed?
A: Heart attack is initially diagnosed based on symptoms, but the confirming test is an electrocardiogram, or EKG. When women go to the emergency room, they still, on average, get an EKG a little more slowly than men.
But the bigger problem is that women tend to present at the ER with their heart attacks later than men do.
Sometimes they delay seeking treatment and getting a diagnosis because of the atypical symptoms. They may attribute the symptoms to something else, like heartburn or anxiety, and not realize they need treatment.
If you’re unsure about your symptoms, call 911. It’s better to let a medical professional decide for you.
Clearing up misconceptions about women and heart health can do a heart good. And don’t hesitate to have a heart-to-heart with your doctor if you think you’re at risk.