Today is National Wear Red Day. Since it was established in 2003, the first Friday in February has been set aside to bring attention to the staggering fact that one in three women fall victim to heart disease every year. The goal of National Wear Red Day is to “encourage everyone to wear red, raise their voices, know their cardiovascular risk, and take action to live longer, healthier lives.”
Heart disease is the number one killer of women and each year more women than men die from heart disease. Women of all ages should be concerned about heart disease, especially if there is a history of disease in your family. Heart disease includes a number of conditions that affect the heart and the blood vessels in the heart:
- Coronary artery disease (CAD). This is the most common form of heart disease and the leading cause of heart attacks. It is characterized by the hardening and narrowing of arteries which makes it more difficult for blood to get the heart. When the heart doesn’t receive adequate blood supply, it can result in chest pains (angina) or a heart attack.
- Heart failure. This occurs when the heart is unable to pump blood efficiently to the body, resulting in other organs not receiving adequate blood supply. Symptoms of heart failure include shortness of breath, swelling in the feet, ankles, and legs, and extreme tiredness.
- Heart arrhythmias. These are changes in the beat of the heart and are harmless for most people. But medical attention should be sought if it is accompanied by other symptoms such as shortness of breath or dizziness.
Heart attack symptoms are unique in women. Women can have a heart attack without ever experiencing chest pain. Women are also more likely than men to have symptoms associated with a heart attack, which are unrelated to chest pain that can make a heart attack harder to identify. These symptoms include:
- Neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back, or abdominal discomfort
- Shortness of breath
- Right arm pain
- Nausea or vomiting
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
- Unusual or extreme fatigue
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms and you are unsure if you are experiencing a heart attack, seek medical attention. If you are indeed having a heart attack, minutes matter in receiving life-saving treatment.
As I discussed in a previous post about the varying risk factors leaving women at a higher risk for suffering a stroke, the same applies for heart disease. Women have many of the same risk factors as men, but the risk factors can affect women more significantly than men.
- Coronary artery disease. This is caused by high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and obesity and is a traditional risk factor for developing heart disease.
- Diabetes. Women who have diabetes are at a significantly higher risk of developing heart disease.
- Metabolic syndrome. This combination of fat around the abdomen, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and high triglycerides more negatively affects women.
- Women’s hearts are more affected by mental stress and depression.
- Women who smoke are at a greater risk of developing heart disease.
- Physical inactivity is a significant risk factor for heart disease, and women tend to be less active.
- After menopause, the lower level of estrogen is a risk factor for developing cardiovascular disease in the smaller blood vessels (microvascular disease).
- Women who had high blood pressure or diabetes during their pregnancy are at higher risk for developing diabetes or high blood pressure.
There are several steps women can take to reduce their risk of developing heart disease:
- Quit or never start smoking
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Exercise 30 to 60 minutes a day, or 60 to 90 minutes if you need to lose weight
- Eat a diet that is low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and salt
- Know your blood pressure
- Get tested for diabetes
- Get your levels of cholesterol and triglycerides tested
- Lower your stress level and find healthy ways to cope with stress
As we celebrate another National Wear Red Day, we can use this time to reflect on the initiatives in your area to raise awareness. Fellow health communicators, what programs have you seen effectively to raise awareness about heart disease in women?