If you asked a representative sampling of American women which health threat most concerned them, it s likely that a goodly proportion would say cancer, especially breast cancer. But they re not on target because, as Jane Brody points out in a recent essay in the New York Times, heart disease is the most common cause of death in women (as well as in men).
Ms. Brody cites research indicating that the prevalence of risk factors for heart disease has been rising, especially among younger women. It s important to understand that since, unlike many forms of cancer, we have solid information about many of the risk factors for heart disease, and importantly some of which can be addressed by the individual.
For example, smoking in particular, as well as obesity, diabetes and a sedentary lifestyle all increase the chance of heart problems. And the combination of smoking and some types of birth control pills has long been known to increase the likelihood of a variety of vascular ailments, both of the heart and of the venous system. Brody notes that too many younger women are still smoking and they are the ones most likely to use hormonal contraception.Other factors that can contribute to a younger woman s risk include gestational diabetes and pre-eclampsia. Stress, depression, and social isolation might also feed into an increased risk profile.
In addition, the symptoms of a heart attack are more subtle for women than men, and thus women may not get treatment in a timely manner. Women are less likely to have crushing chest pain with a heart attack as men often do. Brody points out [W]omen in the throes of a heart attack more often experience discomfort in the neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back or abdomen, dizziness, nausea, right arm pain, shortness of breath, and sweating or unusual fatigue.
ACSH s Dr. Ruth Kava had this to say: There are certainly actions that women can take to reduce their cardiovascular risk, as Jane Brody points out (as have we on numerous occasions). The difficulty lies in motivating younger women to take these actions avoid smoking, maintain a healthy body weight, get regular exercise. Women should have their blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked occasionally BP can be checked at many pharmacies. Somehow we must get women to realize that prevention is a better option than treatment. Let s avoid the problem rather than try to treat it once it appears.