Taking Care of a Woman's Heart

January 20, 2014

CLINTON TOWNSHIP – When it comes to heart disease, most women are unaware of how it can impact them. For too long, heart disease has been thought of as a man’s disease.

Heart disease strikes women with startling frequency. It’s the leading cause of death in women. While heart disease death rates have declined over the last 30 years, the decline has been slower for women, and women are less likely than men to survive a heart attack.

“There is still a lack of awareness of heart disease among women, which means women are not being diagnosed in a timely fashion,” observes Henry Ford Macomb cardiologist Lalitha Rudraiah, MD. “That gap is even larger among African American and Hispanic women. Even in the medical community, whether the physician is male or female, women patients are given fewer tests for heart disease, and the tests they get are given later than those given to men.”

Compounding the lack of awareness is women’s physical makeup.

“Women have smaller coronary arteries than men, which makes them more vulnerable to heart disease,” Dr. Rudraiah explains.

Unlike the sudden chest-clutching collapse that you see in the movies, heart attack symptoms can be much more subtle, especially among women:

  • Chest discomfort or pressure rather than pain
  • Discomfort in the neck, shoulder, upper back or abdomen
  • Pain in the jaw
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Unexplained sweating
  • Feeling dizzy or nauseous
  • Unusual fatigue

“Because women tend to have symptoms that don’t seem typical of a heart attack, they get to the emergency room later, which can decrease their ability survive or fully recover,” Dr. Rudraiah explains.

Be good to your heart

The chance of developing heart disease depends on some things you can’t control, such as age. At around age 55, a woman’s risk for heart disease jumps. Genes matter, too. Women who have a parent or sibling with heart disease have a greater risk.

You can’t do anything to change these risk factors. But other risk factors—such as smoking cigarettes; having diabetes, high blood pressure, or high blood cholesterol; being overweight; and not getting enough physical activity—are things you can control.

“As Heart Month begins, consider adopting a small change that can boost your health,” advises Dr. Rudraiah. “Find yourself a walking or exercise partner instead of a smoking or drinking buddy. Cut a calorie-rich food out of your diet. Small changes like these can help you reduce your risk for developing heart disease.”

More than any other muscle in the body, your heart reacts to the way you treat it. If you give it frequent exercise, a healthy diet and you don’t smoke (smoking is even harder on women’s hearts than on men’s), your heart’s health improves.

Know your numbers

Three numbers also indicate your risk for heart disease so knowing yours and understanding how to make sure they are good can protect you against heart attack:

  1. Blood pressure. Your blood pressure number consists of two numbers separated by a slash – and they both matter. The first number, systolic pressure, signifies the pressure of blood against your artery walls while your heart is pumping. The second number, diastolic pressure, measures the pressure between heartbeats. Normal blood pressure is below 120/80 – anything higher indicates pre-hypertension or hypertension.
  2. Cholesterol levels. Again, there’s more than one number to know here: HDL (good cholesterol), LDL (bad cholesterol), triglycerides and total cholesterol. Aim for total LDL and HDL of 200 or lower with HDL of 50 or higher and LDL of 100 or lower. Triglycerides should be lower than150. See your physician for a lipid profile every five years.
  3. Waist size. If it’s more than 35 inches, you’re at increased risk of heart disease, not to mention other conditions, like diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Losing even one inch can improve your risk of all those conditions

Be Smart With Your Heart

Join cardiologist Lalitha Rudraiah, MD, for a discussion on how to recognize the subtle signs women may experience when having a heart attack that are very different from men. Learn prevention strategies to decrease your risk factors for heart disease and find out about the latest research trends.

Feb. 13

6 to 8 p.m.

Henry Ford Macomb Hospital

Light dinner will be served

The event is free, but registration is required. Call 1-800-532-2411.

In addition, consider taking advantage of Henry Ford’s $99 HeartSmart screening, which includes tests and a consultation with a cardiologist. Call 1-800-532-2411 to learn more or sign up for the next screening date.