What is Heart Disease?
“Heart Disease” is difficult to narrow into one particular category. It is an umbrella term that can refer to defects in the heart or blood vessels present from birth, enlarged hearts, or inflammation in the lining of the heart. The kind of heart disease that is widely discussed in popular culture, however, is atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), which is often directly linked to lifestyle habits like diet and an active lifestyle. This hardening of the arteries is what often leads to a heart attack or stroke.
Women And Heart Disease
This information is particularly important for women: heart disease is the leading cause of death in females over age 40. There are warning signs that make women more likely to develop the disease. Yes, these issues are common for women, especially women in developed countries, but take heart! Most of these problems can be treated if present or avoided altogether, and it is never too late to make lifestyle changes.
Despite increases in awareness over the past decade, only 54% of women actually recognize that heart disease is their number 1 killer. In fact, 1 out of 4 women older than 65 has some form of identified heart disease.
64% of women, which equates to almost 2/3, who die suddenly of heart disease have no previous symptoms.
Risk Factors for Heart Disease
Stress and Anxiety – Stress and heart disease have always been strongly linked, and women are twice as likely to have an anxiety disorder as men from the onset of puberty to age 50. Stress can directly increase blood flow thanks to our natural fight-or-flight response, and this leads to the possibility of a heart attack.
Obesity – Obesity puts a strain on all organs of the body, but especially the heart. A clinical study has shown that women are more at risk for obesity with each child added to the family, where a 7% increase in risk of obesity is seen for each additional child.
Stress and obesity are closely linked, so having one risk factor can increase the chances of the other. Obesity is a strong predictor for heart disease in women whose bodyweight exceeds desirable weight by 20%. 1/3 of all women are obese in the U.S. Belly fat increases the risk versus women with more fat around the hips.
Smoking – Unfortunately, it is often more difficult for women to quit smoking than men. Often, fear of weight gain, the social and behavioral aspects of smoking that medication can’t treat, and the hormonal changes associated with quitting are enough to keep women from breaking the habit. Stress can also lead to smoking, so women are more likely to develop this risk if they already have the risk factors listed above.
High Blood Pressure – Also known as hypertension, high blood pressure is associated with stress, smoking, and obesity. More pressure is placed on the cardiovascular system, and this makes hardened arteries more likely to rupture, causing a stroke or heart attack.
Diabetes – Poses a greater risk for heart disease in women because it cancels the protective effects of estrogen in premenopausal women. Women with diabetes have a higher risk of death from cardiovascular disease than men who have diabetes.
Metabolic syndrome or the combination of fat around the middle, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and high triglycerides affects women at greater rates than men.
Depression rates are two times higher in women than in men and depression makes it more difficult to maintain a healthy lifestyle, which can lead to heart disease. Researches are also finding that heartbreak can actually affect women’s hearts that can result in mild forms of heart problems.
Lack of exercise is a major risk factor for heart disease, and as a group, women tend to be less active than men are.
Low levels of estrogen as a result of menopause pose a significant risk factor for developing cardiovascular disease in the smaller blood vessels, also known as microvascular disease. Researchers know this is due to decreasing levels of estrogen during menopause that typically starts at around the age of 50. Estrogen decreases are also connected to higher cholesterol, because it lowers “good cholesterol” and decreases the bad, which poses extra risk for heart disease.
Birth Control Pills – Raise blood pressure, and blood sugar levels in women, and increase risk for blood clots, thereby increasing risk for heart disease, which is even higher when the woman also smokes. Risks increase with age.
Excessive alcohol use may result in obesity, raise triglyceride and blood pressure levels, cause heart failure, and lead to stroke. Moderation is key, which means one drink per day.
How to Manage Risk Factors
Unfortunately, science has yet to develop a cure-all to solve symptoms, and the best way to take care of heart disease risks has stayed the same for decades: a diet low in saturated fat, sodium and sugar, a regular fitness routine, and cessation of smoking. However, there is a reason that these methods have stood the test of time, even if the general population only changes their behavior by rolling their eyes. These methods are time-tested, and even small lifestyle changes, like eliminating sugary drinks or joining an aerobics class, can be enormous when the change becomes a permanent part of a woman’s lifestyle. Many of these risk factors are closely related, so the benefits are abundant for all risk factors. Yes, the statistics are frightening, but with the support of doctors, coaches, and friends, there the promise of a healthier, longer, and ultimately more fulfilling life.