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Women and Heart Disease

Ophelia Gherman, M.D.
February 28, 2018
While 1 in 31 American women die from breast cancer each year, 1 in 3 dies of heart disease. It’s time to spread awareness regarding women’s risk for heart disease and take responsibility for mitigating our individual risk through healthy lifestyle changes.

Heart disease is the number one killer in most countries in the Western Hemisphere. Though, statistically, we know heart disease affects women and men equally, only about 13% of women believe it is a personal threat to them. While 1 in 31 American women die from breast cancer each year, 1 in 3 dies of heart disease. It’s time to spread awareness regarding women’s risk for heart disease and take responsibility for mitigating our individual risk through healthy lifestyle changes.


Scientists determined that about 80% of heart disease is preventable through a healthy lifestyle. Sadly, a fatal heart attack is still the most common first symptom of heart disease. 


Risk factors for heart disease are related to multiple physical and psychological factors that affect our well-being. 


Heart-Disease Symptoms

A common symptom of an acute heart attack is chest pressure described as "an elephant-sitting-on-one's chest", also known as angina. However, the first signs of heart disease can fall into a gray zone of uncertainty and be, regretfully, brushed off. 


Some of the “vague” symptoms of heart disease can be mistaken for acid reflux, stress, the flu, or normal aging. This is because decreased oxygen to the heart can cause nausea, feeling cold, sweat, fatigue, and shortness of breath, much like the common cold or flu. Other signs can be pain in the neck, jaw, the back or stomach area.


Don’t put off getting help if you experience any of these heart attack warning signs. Although some heart attacks are sudden and intense, most start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. Pay attention to your body—and call 911 at the first sign of potential threat to your heart.


The many forms of heart disease

Congestive heart failure is a condition in which the heart cannot pump enough blood to meet the body’s circulatory needs. This causes sluggish circulation and oxygenation to the body. Symptoms include fatigue, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, or lower leg swelling. These symptoms should be taken seriously and investigated by a healthcare provider. Timely evaluation can prevent a fatal heart attack, kidney failure, or pulmonary hypertension.


Abnormal rhythm of the heart is a condition in which the heart is either beating too fast, too slow or irregularly. This can affect how well the heart is functioning and whether or not the heart is able to pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs. Symptoms include shortness of breath, chest tightness, dizziness, loss of consciousness. Prompt evaluation can prevent further complications such as a heart attack.


Heart valve problems can lead to the heart not opening enough, or the valve leaflets bulge or prolapse into the upper chamber, causing blood to flow backward through them. This interferes with proper blood flow and oxygenation.


Heart-Healthy Habits

While exercise and a healthy diet cannot entirely eliminate the risk of having a heart attack, it definitely lowers chances by 40%.  Here are some good personal goals to achieve:


Physical activity:  “Exercise as medicine” has long been a medical recommendation. Since the 16th century, Hippocrates and the Greek physician Galen frequently prescribed exercise as a treatment for many diseases.  Our heart needs exercise just like every other muscle. When it is exercised, the heart can pump more blood, more efficiently. Aim at being physically active 40 minutes per day. But if you are just a beginner, start with 20 minutes per day 5 days per week. Some common heart-healthy activities include biking, power-walking, jogging, strength-training, gardening that requires vigorous lifting, bending, and walking.


Although women tend to focus on their weight as a sign of health, studies show that the waist circumference is most telling of one's risk of having a heart attack than mere weight in pounds (or kilograms). This is due to the fact that the fat content around the belly is most indicative of the amount of fat content that is surrounding the heart.


Women should aim for a waist circumference less than 80 cm. Here are some steps on how you can measure your waist circumference:      

1. Find the top of your hip bone and the bottom of your ribs.

2. Breathe out normally.

3. Place the tape measure midway between these points and wrap it around your waist.

4. Check your measurement.


Heart Healthy Eating:

A healthy diet is an important weapon against heart disease. Making small changes in diet can help reduce the risk of arterial inflammation, otherwise known as atherosclerosis. Since heart disease begins with atherosclerosis and worsens with persistent inflammation, cardiac disease risk can be lowered by eliminating inflammatory ingredients from the diet—ingredients such as sugars, trans-fats, white flour, and artificial chemical additives.


Replace processed flour with whole wheat or whole grain products. Replace processed sugars with raw or plant-based sweeteners. Try to avoid using canned and boxed goods which are usually high in salts and chemical additives. Have fun incorporating a handful of anti-inflammatory ingredients in all your meals such as ginger, turmeric, garlic, and onion. Some healthy fats which add an anti-inflammatory punch to your meal are almonds, walnuts, flaxseed oil, and avocados.


For patients with Congestive heart failure, it is vitally important to avoid excess salt in the form of added table salt, condiments, or salt-containing spices and processed foods with transfats and sugars. Monitoring weight and avoiding weight gain is also important, as obesity can compound the effects of CHF. Alcohol and caffeine should be avoided by anyone with abnormal heart rhythm and blood flow. Adequate hydration should be maintained to support blood flow.


Being heart-healthy includes balancing many aspects of life.Eating well and exercising are not only heart-protective but can prevent diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis, and obesity. So why not adopt a healthy diet and exercise plan today?


“Moderate exercise every day will impart strength to the muscles, which without exercise become flabby and enfeebled,” (Healthful Living, p.135).


“For while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come,” 1 Timothy 4:8.



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