Women and Heart Disease: What You Can Do Today

Maleki Neda Dianati Maleki, MD, MSc, FACC
Cardiologist, Stony Brook Heart Institute
Clinical Assistant Professor of Cardiology
Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the U.S., claiming the lives of almost one in three every year. However, more than half are not aware of the risks that heart or cardiovascular disease (CVD) poses to their health. Here, Stony Brook cardiologist, Neda Dianati Maleki, MD, shares what every woman should know today about CVD and their heart.

Know Your Risk Factors
Despite up to 75 percent of American women having one or more heart disease risk factors, only about one in four raises the issue of heart health with her primary care doctor. And, while six times as many women die from heart disease each year, more women feel that breast cancer is the larger risk.

The more heart disease risk factors you have, such as family history, high blood pressure or cholesterol, obesity, inactivity, smoking or diabetes, the greater your risk. Never assume that you’re too healthy or too young to have heart disease.

Risk factors unique to women include oral contraceptive use (especially for women who smoke and some types pose a higher risk than others); pregnancy-related high blood pressure (preeclampsia) and diabetes (gestational diabetes); polycystic ovary disease and early-onset menopause. When considering hormone replacement therapy, women should evaluate their individual risks/benefits with their doctor.

In addition, studies have shown that chronic stress, depression and certain health conditions, such as autoimmune disorders, can increase one’s risk. Certain treatments for cancer can also impact one’s overall heart health; Stony Brook’s Cardio-Oncology Program can help protect heart health for those individuals at risk before, during and after treatment.

Be Your Own Best Advocate for Heart Health
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 as 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. During a heart attack, only about one in eight women report chest pain, and often describe it as pressure, aching, or tightness rather than pain. 

You can be your own best advocate when it comes to your heart. Maintain an ongoing dialogue with your healthcare provider about heart disease risk, symptoms and your overall health. In one study, women reported deep fatigue and disturbed sleep as much as a month or two before a heart attack. If you feel that something’s suddenly not right, trust your gut. Almost 90 percent of women who have had a heart attack report having had a feeling that something was “just not right.” Don’t put off emergency care if you are having symptoms.

Here’s What You Can Control
Up to 90 percent of heart disease can be avoided with diet and lifestyle changes and preventive treatment.
Here’s what you can do:
Know Your Numbers. 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. Talk with your doctor about tests and treatments.
Eat Better and Get Moving. Load up on fresh fruits, veggies and whole grains and steer clear of high-sodium processed foods, trans and saturated fat and sugars. Aim for a minimum of a half-hour at least three days a week.
Quit Smoking. After one year of not smoking, your heart disease risk goes down by half. After seven years, the smoking-heart disease risk drops to zero.

Free Heart Health Risk Assessment

Take our free heart health risk assessment at stonybrookmedicine.edu/hearthealth 
For an appointment at Stony Brook’s Women’s Heart Center, call (631) 44-HEART (444-3278).