Women Take Heart: Cardiovascular Disease Still the #1 Killer

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Cardiovascular disease kills more than 480,000 women per year. It is responsible for 29% of fatalities in women in the US and is the leading cause of death for both men and women...

Cardiovascular disease kills more than 480,000 women per year. It is responsible for 29% of fatalities in women in the US and is the leading cause of death for both men and women; but while more men than women tend to die of the disease, the real problem for women lies in underdiagnosis due to several contributing factors.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), there are many risk factors that influence a woman’s predisposition to cardiovascular disease (CVD), including:

• Increasing age

• Gender

• Heredity

• Smoking

• High blood cholesterol

• High blood pressure

• Physical inactivity

• Obesity

• Diabetes

Modifications to lifestyle (eg, healthy diet and exercise) can alleviate the risk of developing CVD; however, “a family history of diabetes, gout, high blood pressure or high blood cholesterol also increases the risk of heart disease,” making the risk factors higher and more difficult to avoid.

Battle of the Sexes

The “Improving the Quality of Care for Cardiovascular Disease” study found that women are less likely than men to receive the recommended care for high cholesterol. After controlling for age, income, and ethnicity, and other factors, researchers reported “equal or better outcomes for women on most dimensions of care—with the notable exception of cholesterol control, where significant disparities existed between men and women.”

Although treatment in many cases produces favorable outcomes, some women never get the chance to seek treatment. Some studies have estimated that more than 60% of women who died suddenly of coronary heart disease had no previous symptoms. These findings suggest women may underestimate their risk for heart disease and high cholesterol, and still show a general lack of understanding when it comes to health disparities among men and women.

Updated guidelines for cardiovascular disease prevention in women were released in February of this year, detailing long-term methods of therapy, lifestyle changes, and the use of dietary supplements. Some lifestyle modifications include weight control, increased physical activity, and sodium restriction. The evidence-based guidelines, published in the journal Circulation, mention the $403 billion spent in 2006 alone toward heart disease healthcare. Clearly a change in activity and general way of life would help offset this cost for American females.

Pregnancy also plays a role in women’s increased chance of developing heart disease compared with men. Prepregnancy diabetes, hypertension, and metabolic syndrome are all contributing factors to some of the 38.2 million total women in the US currently living with the disease. Additionally, the “initial manifestations of [heart disease] in women occur 10 years later than in men,” presenting a “10-year window of opportunity for preventive measures.”

Heart of the Matter

Fortunately, more organizations are working every day to battle heart disease. The AHA launched a nationwide movement, Go Red for Women, to celebrate the power of women to band together to fight the disease. Founded in 2004, the campaign seeks to raise awareness in women of the dangers of heart disease through education and fundraising. Send your patients to the Go Red Heart CheckUp website to assess their heart health, read about the warning signs, or learn more about “good” and “bad” cholesterol. You can help your patients assess their risks and mark their progress toward a heart healthy lifestyle.

Defined simply as “too much body fat,” obesity raises blood cholesterol, blood pressure, and is a risk factor for diabetes. Coupled with physical inactivity and poor eating habits, obesity is attributed to the consumption of too many calories, leading to high cholesterol, thus, increased risk of heart disease. In fact, weight gain during young adult life may be “one of the most important determinants” of heart disease. Additionally, more than 75% of hypertension can be directly attributed to obesity.

Additional ResourcesEchocardiography Helps Identify Heart Disease

Heart Disease in Women

The Heart Truth

The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease

WomensHealth.gov: Heart Disease

Women to Women

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