Contributor: Leslie Cho, MD
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It’s responsible for 49% of deaths among all females. It kills an average of 400,000 women each year.
You may assume I’m talking about breast cancer. I’m not. I’m talking about heart disease, which kills more women in this country than all forms of cancer combined.
My goal is not to diminish breast cancer awareness, which has helped save and improve the lives of countless women. Instead, my goal is to remind you that heart disease is a major risk for women, too — and that you can do something about it.
Know your family history
There’s a reason family history comes up again and again in discussion. It’s a major tool in personalized healthcare and disease prevention.
When it comes to heart disease, gather as much information about your family as you can. Start with immediate family: parents, grandparents and siblings. Have any of them suffered heart attack or cardiovascular diseases? How old were they when they died, and what was the cause?
The more information you gather, the better you and your doctor can work to minimize your risk. Online tools such as the surgeon general’s My Family Health Portrait offer a great place to start.
Pay attention to signs and symptoms
Pain or a feeling of pressure in the chest is a common symptom of a heart attack for anyone, male or female. So is pain radiating down the shoulder and arm.
But sometimes these classic symptoms aren’t as pronounced in women as they are in men. So pay special attention to other symptoms, such as severe nausea and sweating, shortness of breath and unusual dizziness or fatigue. If you notice these symptoms — especially if your family history shows you’re at risk — seek treatment immediately. Unfortunately, many women don’t seek help until the damage has already been done to their hearts.
Have regular check-ups
In addition to seeking help right away for acute symptoms, make and keep your regular well-check appointments. Be prepared to discuss your concerns and your family history with your doctor. Besides family history, other risk factors include smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
If you are at risk — as so many women are — your doctor can tailor a plan to help you reduce that risk. That plan can include a healthy weight-loss goal if you’re overweight or obese, an exercise plan and personalized nutrition recommendations for a heart-healthy diet.
Above all else, don’t just assume that heart disease primarily affects men. It’s a major killer for women, but you can take steps to prevent it before it happens.