It is widely known that heart disease is the nation’s number one killer, but some may be less aware that the potent ailment annually results in more deaths of women than it does for men. While common stereotypes of big bellies and fast food diets certainly make males equally vulnerable, this complex disease is actually developed by a broad range of factors. And only a growing awareness of the very serious issue permits proper prevention.
Here is a closer look at how heart disease affects women, the most frequent risk factors of the disease, and a guide to typical symptoms
Coronary Artery Disease
The most common variety of heart disease is coronary artery disease and it typically cause a heart attacks if untreated. This ailment develops as plaque builds along the inner walls of the arteries going to the heart. Such plaque is composed of a combination of cells, calcium, and tissue and contains lipids like cholesterol and fatty acids. The build-up of plaque (known as atherosclerosis) gradually narrows free passage of blood to the heart. When that flow is eventually stopped, a heart attack occurs, due to the lack of oxygen reaching part of the heart.
Though coronary artery disease is a deadly killer, its most dangerous feature is how it typically develops in silence. For sure, the contributing poor lifestyle choices are usually known. They include a lack of exercise, smoking, excessive alcohol, and a poor diet. However, these conditions also lead to other problems and generally poor health. As a result, it is easy to focus on outward issues, like merely losing weight. And sometimes that priority disguises the pressing need for specific changes due to an internal problem.
While coronary artery disease is the most common form of serious cardiovascular problems, others do exist that develop similarly but result in a different effects on the circulatory system. For example, coronary microvascular disease instead damages the small arteries in the walls of the heart, but it also strikes women at a greater rate than men.
While many risk factors lead to heart disease, the five most common causes are collectively lumped into a grouping called metabolic syndrome. Any one of these factors is problematic by itself, since they all possess the potential for heart disease. However, an individual dealing with a combination of three of these factors is considered to suffer from metabolic syndrome:
Abdominal obesity: characterized by an apple shape body, where excessive fat is carried around the lower waistline.
High blood pressure: heightened force of blood pushing through arteries can damage the heart and allow conditions for the build-up of plaque.
High blood sugar: high glucose level can cause diabetes, which makes one twice as likely to experience a heart attack or stroke.
High triglyceride level: largely due to the modern diet, this means that there is too much fat in the body’s blood, which directly results in plaque build-up in the arteries.
Low HDL (good) cholesterol: while LDL level (bad cholesterol) receives much attention, HDL is believed to carry cholesterol from the blood and back to the liver for processing.
In fairness, some of the previously mentioned stereotypes are slightly more accurate here, such as the build-up of an excessive amount of belly fat, which does greatly hinder health in men. However, women are certainly at the same risk for metabolic syndrome, as these factors collectively affect both sexes. The beneficial news, however, is that the signs of metabolic syndrome are fairly easily detected by regular visits to the doctor. Though genetic factors share blame in the on-set of the problems from metabolic syndrome, lifestyle changes can minimize long-term dangers.
Other Risk Factors
Though the five facets of metabolic syndrome are often the most obvious vulnerabilities for heart disease, many factors can lead to the ailment. And some of additional ones clearly target women more than men. Smoking surely causes a range of problems for the body, but its affect on heart disease is sometimes overshadowed by the toll on the respiratory system. This is a real shame, since a shockingly high 20% of heart disease is actually the result of smoking.
Other lifestyle factors, including stress, lack of activity, and depression, all elevate the risk of cardiovascular problems. These problems have a dangerous tendency to make the heart less healthy and thus less effective in circulating blood throughout the body. Some warning signs for heart disease do discriminate by specifically target women. These include a low estrogen level after menopause and complications of pregnancy. Women who experience either problem should thoroughly investigate the health of their circulatory system.
Symptoms of Heart Disease in Women
Since heart disease can be a silent killer, the need to recognize early symptoms is critical. Indeed, spotting a heart attack early can result in life saving surgery and bring about changes in life that can allow years of improved health. The most common sign of the ailment is varying degrees of pain and discomfort in one’s chest. While this is the typical footprint of a heart attack, it is far from the only way the problem is revealed. And the danger from other symptoms remains elevated because such signs often are left untreated.
In fact, women should most closely consider a listing of additional symptoms, as men are more likely to experience traditional chest pains when dealing with heart disease. Beginning with chest pains, here are some of the most common signs of coronary artery disease:
Pain or pressure in the chest
Discomfort in the back, neck, or abdomen
Nausea or vomiting
Fatigue, dizziness, or feeling lightheaded
Shortness of breath
Sharp pain in the right arm
It must be noted that each of these factors possesses the potential of being unrelated to heart disease and being the result of another problem with the body. Yet, since the degree of risk in dealing with heart problems is so critical, experiencing any of these problems should never be ignored.
The amount of discomfort in these ailments often varies. In fact, sometimes these symptoms even come and go, as the problems within the body’s arteries slowly builds. When everyday life is otherwise so busy, it is easy to try to ignore this potential hidden issue. Experience shows that many will even downplay the difficulties to concerned family and friends.
This is a grave mistake. Do not wait until damage from heart disease can become substantial and keep a close eye for these symptoms, especially if meeting any of the various risk factors. When knowing that you are living an unhealthy life, be aware of the existence of internal dangers — not just visible ones on the outside.
However, the reverse is equally true, especially for women. Just because things look alright on the outside does not mean deadly plaque is not on the march internally. Quitting smoking, eating better, and weight loss are universal positives. But these steps alone cannot eliminate the potential for build-up of plaque in the arteries.
Remember, even seemingly healthy women remain at risk for heart disease, as 1 in 3 adults (more than 80 million Americans) currently live with some form of cardiovascular struggles. Regardless of gender, our best defense against this very prevalent ailment remains increased knowledge.