Heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women in the United States. Fortunately, the condition is often highly preventable through lifestyle changes, medication or both. February is American Heart Month — a month dedicated to raising awareness about heart disease and its associated risk factors.
"Heart disease" is a broad term that covers several specific heart conditions and is often used interchangeably with "cardiovascular disease." However, these terms are not exactly the same. Heart disease refers to diseases of the heart and the blood vessel system within the heart. Cardiovascular disease refers to diseases of the heart and the blood vessel system within the entire body.
Coronary heart disease (CHD) is the most common form of heart disease and is characterized by the narrowing of the small blood vessels that supply blood and oxygen to the heart. This narrowing of the blood vessels is caused by a build–up of plaque in the arteries (atherosclerosis) that can impede the flow of blood to the heart, resulting in chest pain (angina) and/or shortness of breath. If blood flow is stopped completely, a heart attack can occur. In some cases, the first sign of CHD is a heart attack. Men in their 40s have a higher risk of developing CHD than women. As women age, however, their risk increases until it is almost equal to that of men.
Other common types of heart disease include irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia), heart valve conditions and heart failure.
American Heart Month kicked off on February 1 with National Wear Red Day® -— a day when individuals across America wear red to show support for women's heart disease awareness*. The Heart Truth®, a public service initiative sponsored by the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), created and introduced the Red Dress in 2002 as the national symbol for women's heart disease awareness. This campaign provides a personal and urgent wakeup call to all women by encouraging them to understand and modify their heart disease risk factors. The campaign has seen tremendous progress since its inception, including a 21 percent decrease in female deaths related to heart disease and a 23 percent increase in the number of women who are aware that heart disease is their number one health threat.
Heart disease is still often thought of as a "men's disease," yet in every year since 1984, heart disease has killed more women than men. Women die from heart disease at an average rate of one death per minute. According to the American Heart Association's (AHA) Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics 2013 Update, approximately 42.9 million American women (more than 1 in 3) are currently living with some form of heart disease. This number includes almost half of all African–American women, more than one–third of all Caucasian women and slightly less than one–third of Mexican–American women. Despite the statistics, only one in five American women believes that heart disease is her greatest health threat.
There are many similarities in the way heart disease affects men and women, but there are also some important differences, such as risk factors and signs of a heart attack.
Men and women face many of the same heart disease risk factors:
To reduce the risk of heart disease, all risk factors need to be addressed through lifestyle changes when possible. Important lifestyle changes include quitting smoking, losing weight, changing dietary habits, reducing stress and engaging in regular physical activity. Research suggests that even small lifestyle changes can reduce the risk of heart disease. In addition to lifestyle modifications, a physician may prescribe medication(s) to treat heart disease and/or heart disease risk factors. There are a variety of medications that may be prescribed including blood pressure medications, cholesterol medications, beta blockers and blood thinning medications.
According to the AHA, someone in the U.S. has a heart attack approximately every 34 seconds. For both men and women, the most common sign of a heart attack is chest pain, pressure or discomfort. Other common symptoms include discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach; shortness of breath; and/or nausea, lightheadedness and cold sweats. While chest pain is still the most common symptom among women, studies have shown that women are more likely than men to have symptoms other than chest pain or discomfort when having a heart attack. Women are also more likely to have these uncommon heart attack warning signs:
The good news is that heart disease deaths among men and women have been declining over the past 30 years. Unfortunately, deaths among women have been declining at a slower rate. Heart health is one of the most important components of overall health and well–being. Many of the risk factors for heart disease are modifiable and can be controlled. Speak to your physician about your personal heart disease risk factors and the ways in which you can modify and/or reduce them.
* The photo shown in this article is EHE's 2013 National Wear Red Day photo. This year's photo, which features twenty–eight EHE International women wearing stunning red evening gowns, was taken in front of the "Rhythms of Infinity" wall at 30 Rockefeller Plaza and will be on display in a window at 10 Rockefeller Plaza throughout February. The window also highlights a decade of EHE International's support of this very important women's health issue.