The prevalence of heart disease in women has been receiving a lot of attention recently for good reasons. Heart attacks are the leading cause of death in women in the United States, and over 500,000 women will experience a heart attack this year. Forty percent will be fatal, with half dying before they reach a hospital.
The reasons for the higher mortality (death) rate in women are not entirely clear. Less awareness of symptoms, older age at the time of the heart attack and smaller blood vessels may all contribute. In fact, at older ages, more women die of heart disease than men.
Heart attacks occur when the blood supply to the heart is interrupted. Cholesterol and fat deposits can build up in the arteries supplying the heart muscle and create a blockage. At the time of the attack, the blockage narrows the opening of the artery and blood flow to the heart stops. It only takes six hours for the heart muscle to become permanently damaged and early treatment is, therefore, essential.
Chest pain or angina often precedes a heart attack. Women may be more likely to ignore classic symptoms due to less awareness of their indications. Some of those symptoms resemble a smothering, burning and/or squeezing pressure or other disagreeable sensations. The symptoms usually occur with activity and may be associated with difficulty breathing, arm or neck numbness and tingling as well as nausea and sweating.
In older women, sign of an impending heart attack may be far less obvious and chest pain may not be present. Therefore, it is important to seek evaluation if any new disagreeable sensations develop in the chest area.
Prevention of heart attacks in women can be enhanced by increased awareness of the three main controllable risk factors: smoking, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Although less studied, women clearly benefit from efforts to reduce their risk in these three areas. Other risk in these three areas include family history of heart disease, diabetes and older age (post-menopausal women). As the number of risk factors increase, so does the likelihood of heart disease.
Medical evaluation may include a blood pressure check, cholesterol screenings, diet and exercise counseling and stress testing in secluded patients. Tests such as ultrasound and nuclear scans are more often employed to aid in proper diagnosis in women.
The impact of heart disease in women is only beginning to be recognized. By the year 2015, half of all women in the United States will be over 45 years old and older the age when heart disease is most prevalent. Increased awareness of risk factors, symptoms and prevention are the keys to lowering the risk of heart disease and improving the out look on womens' health.