Cardiologist, Stony Brook Women’s Heart Center
Director, Stony Brook Heart Failure and Cardiomyopathy Center Outpatient Services
Co-Director, Stony Brook Cardio-Oncology Center, Stony Brook University Heart Institute
Despite its longtime reputation as mostly a man’s problem, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S. — responsible, in fact, for nearly one-third of deaths among women. That’s more than the next seven causes combined, including all cancers. The good news: Over 80 percent of heart disease is preventable. Stony Brook cardiologist, Michelle Weisfelner Bloom, MD, shares how.
What Are My Risk Factors?
Heart or cardiovascular disease covers a broad spectrum of conditions that includes heart attacks, stroke, congestive heart failure, aneurysms and peripheral artery disease.
Risk factors affect both men and women and include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, family history and lifestyle factors, such as smoking, physical inactivity, stress and obesity. Some breast cancer treatments, including chemotherapy and radiation, can also increase the risk of heart disease.
Certain risk factors are unique to women. These include polycystic ovarian syndrome, gestational diabetes, pregnancy-related complications, such as premature birth or pregnancy-induced hypertension, and menopause.
Are Heart Attack Symptoms the Same for Both Men and Women?
Men and women can both experience the most common heart attack symptoms, such as chest pain, sweating and shortness of breath, but women are more likely to experience more subtle symptoms, such back pain between the shoulder blades, neck pain, jaw pain, nausea, vomiting and fatigue — and often chalk these up to less life-threatening conditions like the flu or acid-reflux, which can cause a delay in seeking treatment.
The Bottom Line: Don’t Put Off Getting Help
You are your own best advocate when it comes to your heart health. If you feel strongly that something’s not right, trust your gut and intuition. Dial 911 and head for the nearest emergency room. Almost 90 percent of women who have had a heart attack report having had a feeling that something was “just not right.”
What Can Women Do to Reduce Their Heart Disease Risk?
Stop Smoking. Nicotine increases heart rate and blood pressure and damages blood vessels. Smoking not only doubles a woman’s risk of developing heart disease, but female smokers have a 25 percent higher risk of heart disease than men.
Modify Your Diet. Shop the supermarket in the outer aisles. That’s where you will find the fruit, veggies, meat and fish. If your cart finds its way into the inner (prepared foods) aisles, limit or avoid those items with saturated and trans fat, added sugars and/or sodium listed near the top of the label.
Ready, Set, Move. Exercise not only boosts your “good” cholesterol, lowers your blood pressure and keeps your weight down, but is a kind of “one-stop-shopping” for your overall well-being. Aim for at least 30 minutes a day of brisk movement, at least five days a week. Spread the 30 minutes out into more bite-sized 10-minute chunks and still reap the benefits. If you aren’t used to exercise, are over 60 or have questions about your heart health, see your doctor before participating in any strenuous activities.
Just Say, “No.” Chronic stress is associated with an increased risk of heart attacks and stroke and that feeling of, “I can’t get it all done,” can really take a toll. Avoid over-committing. Take some downtime and head outdoors, practice deep breathing, give yoga or meditation a try, or call a friend. Prioritize yourself and make an investment in your physical and mental health.
Know Your Key Numbers for Heart Health. Here are the goals: Body mass index (BMI), a healthy weight indicator, should be between 18.5 to 24.9 with a waist measurement of 35 inches or less; blood pressure: 120/80 or below; blood sugar/diabetes risk (fasting blood glucose): 100 mg/dL or less; “good” cholesterol (HDL): 50 and above; “bad” cholesterol (LDL): 100 or below; and triglycerides: 150 or below.
For more information, call Stony Brook Heart Institute at (631) 44-HEART (3278).