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Heart disease is the nation’s leading killer of women, and misinformation about heart health contributes to that tragic statistic.
The heart, which is approximately the size of a closed fist, pumps blood through the blood vessels of the body’s circulatory system. Heart disease—heart attacks, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and more—have long been misclassified as a “man’s disease.”
But women could be more likely to develop different kinds of heart disease. A woman’s heart is physically different than a man’s. In general, women are more likely to:
- Have smaller hearts and blood vessels.
- Develop plaque—a waxy substance including cholesterol—in their vessels that look and behave differently than the build-ups and blockages typically seen in men.
- Go through experiences that increase heart disease risk, such as childbirth and chest radiation for breast cancer.
As a national leader in women’s heart health, we’re proud of our personalized—and precise—approach to care. For example, our MedStar Women’s Heart Health Program is staffed by nationally recognized cardiac specialists who work to increase awareness and prevention of heart disease in women.
Our cardiologists use innovative prevention and treatment technologies, and we are on the leading edge of women’s health research. MedStar Health participates in women’s cardiovascular research such as WARRIOR, a four-year, multi-center clinical study to determine the best treatment approaches for women with coronary artery disease.
However, when it comes to women’s health, there is always more work to be done. Let’s debunk five common myths about women’s heart health—and, by doing so, empower you with facts to protect your overall health long term.
Myth 1: Heart disease is a man’s disease.
Truth: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost as many women as men die each year of heart disease in the U.S.:
- In 2017, heart disease was responsible for about 1 in every 5 female deaths
- Heart disease is the leading cause of death for Black and White women
- About 1 in 16 women age 20 and older (6.2%) have coronary heart disease, the most common type of heart disease
Additionally, there are female-specific heart diseases. Examples include microvascular disease, which affects the walls and inner lining of tiny coronary artery blood vessels, and broken heart syndrome, which occurs when the heart is physically overcome by intense emotions.
Women with early menopause or chronic inflammatory diseases, such as lupus, psoriasis, and rheumatoid arthritis, are also at a higher risk of developing heart disease. Patients who have undergone radiation therapy or chemotherapy to the breast must be more mindful about heart health for the rest of their life. The estimated 6-10% of women who develop preeclampsia (high blood pressure in pregnancy) should also be aware of their heart health risk.
Myth 2: Women should worry about breast cancer and not heart disease.
Truth: It’s not either/or—it’s both. In both cases, prevention can help save your life. Organizations such as the American Cancer Society have done a phenomenal job increasing awareness about breast cancer screenings, prevention, and treatment.
However, heart disease ends more lives each year than breast cancer. Breast cancer affects about 4 million women in the United States each year, with about 42,000 women dying from it. Heart disease affects nearly 50 million women in the U.S. each year and ends the lives of almost 300,000.
Heart disease and breast cancer can also happen simultaneously. At MedStar Health, our approach includes a unique cardio-oncology program. We’re experts in both women’s heart health and breast cancer treatment—and we’re also helping the world understand these diseases through a fellowship program that trains doctors to treat both.
Myth 3: I feel fine; I can’t have heart disease.
Truth: Two-thirds of women who died suddenly of heart disease had no symptoms or no relatable symptoms that they thought were from the heart. High blood pressure and high cholesterol usually don’t cause any symptoms but can be deadly.
Signs of heart disease can manifest differently in women and don’t always begin with “as shown on TV” crushing chest pain. While chest pain can be a sign of a heart attack in both women and men, women are much more likely to have subtle symptoms that are easier to ignore. These include:
- Pressure and burning not necessarily confined to the chest but also in the stomach or jaw
- Chest discomfort, squeezing, or tightness that travels to the arms, neck, or upper back
- Sudden shortness of breath
- Nausea or vomiting
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
- Extreme fatigue
It’s easy to shrug off symptoms due to the rapid pace of life and the added stress of the COVID-19 pandemic. You may not want to take time off work, incur the health care cost, or “bother” your doctor with your concerns. However, the time you take to address symptoms could keep you alive and healthy and enable you to take care of those who need you.
You know your body better than anyone else, and you know when something doesn’t feel right. It’s important to get your symptoms checked to prevent heart damage—or even death. It’s also important to know there’s no catch-all list for heart disease symptoms, so be sure to talk to your doctor if something feels off or you’re unsure about a potential symptom.
Myth 4: Heart disease only affects older and less fit people.
Truth: Heart disease can strike anyone. It affects women young and old; everyone from those who run marathons to those with more sedentary lifestyles.
However, what you do in your younger years plays a role later in life. Both sexes—and patients young and old—share the most common risk factors for heart disease, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. Choosing healthier habits can lower your risk factors and reduce plaque build-up in your arteries.
Your genetic makeup also is key to your heart health. Genetic counselors at MedStar Health can offer and interpret genetic tests that may help to estimate the risk of connective tissue diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis, and cardiomyopathy, a heart muscle disease that makes it more difficult for your heart to pump blood to the rest of your body.
Knowing your risks—and your options—can help you get the care you need. Awareness is key. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s time to talk to your doctor.
Myth 5: I already have heart disease; there’s nothing I can do about it.
Truth: Knowledge is the first step. Knowing what you can do to reduce your risk is the next. By recognizing your risk factors and controlling them with exercise and a heart-healthy diet, you have an advantage. To keep your heart healthy or prevent worsening conditions, consider these actions:
- Quit smoking (or don’t start).
- Get regular exercise; at a minimum, walk around at least 30 minutes per day.
- Eat healthy, including plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fish or lean meat. Limit your intake of processed foods, salt, added sugars, and saturated and trans fats.
- Know your numbers. Maintain a healthy weight, blood pressure, cholesterol level, and blood sugar level through healthy living and any medicines recommended by your doctor.
- Limit your alcohol intake to no more than one drink per day.
It’s important to know that, even if you have heart disease, you have options to live a longer and healthier life. At MedStar Health, we help you understand your disease, its risks, and how to keep it at bay. We care for each patient differently, and this personalized approach is key to your well-being.