Women and Heart Disease From a Medical Spokesperson

February 14, 2018

Medical Spokesperson on Women and Heart Disease

As a medical spokesperson and health promoter, I often talk about how women can reduce their risk of disease, and this month is no different. February is American Heart Month, which calls for us as Americans to pay special attention to the risk factors for heart disease and learn how we can protect our tickers. Women are especially vulnerable to heart disease. In fact, 1 in 4 U.S. women dies from heart disease. In honor of American Heart Month, here are some other facts about our hearts and what we can do to keep them beating for decades to come.

Heart disease in women is a real problem—it’s a fact I’m always reminding people of in my role as a medical spokesperson. But what exactly are we are talking about when we say, “heart disease”? There are several diseases that we, as women, need to be particularly concerned about. During the month of February, I’ll discuss these and share tips on how you can reduce your risk of developing heart disease. I’ll also share advice on what you can do if you already have symptoms of heart disease.

Coronary heart disease (CHD)

Today’s post will focus primarily on CHD (also known as coronary artery disease or atherosclerosis), which is the most common heart disease today. It’s the #1 killer of both women and men in the United States, so as a medical spokesperson I’ve covered this many times. The disease occurs when plaque builds up inside the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle. Plaque is a waxy substance, and as it adheres to your arterial walls, it stunts the flow of oxygen-rich blood to your heart. This buildup, which is comprised of fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances found in the blood, is a slow process that occurs over many years.

As arteries become narrower, the plaque can also harden, which is why the condition is colloquially called “hardening of the arteries.” Areas of plaque can also rupture, causing the release of blood clot that can further reduce or block the flow of fresh, oxygenated blood the heart.

Once your arteries have narrowed, you’re at risk for angina or heart attack. Angina can feel a lot like a heart attack, with chest pain, pressure, or discomfort. It can also cause pain in the shoulders, arms, neck, back, or jaw as well as feelings of indigestion. Angina is often a symptom of CHD, though it can occur for other reasons.

A heart attack occurs when the flow of oxygen-rich blood to a section of the heart muscle is cut off, due to rupture of plaque or severe narrowing. If the heart doesn’t begin receiving fresh blood right away, the section of the heart that’s deprived oxygen begins to die, so quick treatment is absolutely imperative. As you’re probably aware, a heart attack can result in serious health problems or death.

No matter what you think may be causing the pain or discomfort, if you experience symptoms of heart attack or angina, go to the ER or call 911. Don’t wait. Don’t second-guess yourself. As women, we are particularly vulnerable to doubting ourselves. We are also more likely to experience symptoms of heart attack that aren’t “classic,” such as nausea/vomiting, pain in areas other than the chest, lightheadedness, and sweating/chills. The best thing you can do to avoid (or appropriately respond to) a heart attack is to minimize risk factors for heart disease (see below), know the signs and symptoms, and trust your instincts.

CHD Complications

Even if you don’t experience angina or heart attack, CHD causes your heart to weaken over time, since the muscle is chronically deprived of some of the oxygen it needs to function optimally. Just like a person who receives enough food to survive but not to thrive, a heart who receives enough oxygen to keep beating, but not to function normally, will grow weak and lethargic. When this happens to you, it’s known as heart failure.

Heart failure can occur as the result of CHD or for other reasons we’ll discuss shortly. When the heart is failing, it’s either not getting enough oxygenated blood, which it receives from your lungs (right-side heart failure), not pumping enough oxygen-rich blood to your body (left-side heart failure), or both.

Heart failure can be an acute (short-term) condition that resolves relatively quickly or a chronic (long-term) condition that doesn’t get better. Acute heart failure occurs after a heart attack or when the heart valves aren’t working properly. Chronic heart failure, which accounts for the majority of all instances of heart failure, doesn’t improve over time, though it can often be managed with medications and lifestyle changes.

Heart failure can be caused by a variety of other diseases, conditions, and behaviors, including diabetes, severe anemia, HIV/AIDS, high blood pressure, emphysema, drug/alcohol use, heart defects and valve problems, cardiomyopathy (a weakening of the heart muscle), chemotherapy, and thyroid issues.

When you experience heart failure, it can cause you to experience shortness of breath or trouble breathing; fatigue; and swelling in the ankles, feet, legs, stomach, and veins in the neck. You’re likely to become more easily fatigued from simple activities such as getting dressed or climbing stairs These symptoms are caused by fluid buildup in the body that results from poor blood flow. You may also experience weight gain, frequent urination, and cough, and these symptoms may be signs of pulmonary edema, a buildup of fluid in the lungs that requires emergency treatment.

CHD and other heart problems can also cause arrhythmias, heart-rate or heart-rhythm problems that can sometimes lead to sudden cardiac arrest, which causes death if not treated within minutes.

Next Up: Reducing Your Risk

If it sounds like one problem can lead to another when it comes to the heart, it’s because it can and very often does. There are risk factors for CHD and related complications that you can’t avoid, such as family history, race, and gender, but there are also plenty of steps you can take to reduce your risk. My role as a medical spokesperson requires me not only to provide you facts on problems, but also empower you to make positive changes that can help you lead a longer, fuller life. Later this month, I’ll talk with you about the risk factors for heart disease and what you can do to minimize the chances that you’ll become a statistic yourself.