Q. Do women really need to worry about heart disease?
A. Yes. Heart disease is the number one killer of women in the United States. More than 250,000 women die each year from heart disease. In addition, one out of ten women ages 45 to 64 have some kind of heart disease and one out of four women over 65 have some kind of heart disease. You have more chance of getting heart disease as you get older.
Q. What is heart disease?
A. Heart disease means that your heart is not getting enough blood and oxygen. It is caused by fatty materials that build up in the arteries that carry blood and oxygen to your heart. The arteries close up and become hard, which means that less blood gets through to your heart. This can cause chest pain and heart attacks. Heart disease develops over time and can even start in childhood.
Q. What can lead to heart disease?
A. Cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, diabetes, being overweight, not getting enough exercise, being over age 55, and a family history of early heart disease can all lead to heart disease.
Q. What can I do to lower my chances of getting heart disease?
A. Here are ways to lower your chances of getting heart disease.
- Quit smoking.
- Eat healthy foods with less fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol. Talk with your doctor or dietitian about which foods are low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol.
- Eat foods with less salt.
- Get your blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked each year.
- Keep your blood pressure and cholesterol at healthy levels.
- Take your high blood pressure medication.
- Take your high blood cholesterol medication.
- Lose weight if you are overweight.
- Get lots of exercise. Check with your doctor to find out what kinds of exercise are safe and best for you.
- Take care of your diabetes. Check your blood sugar levels, eat healthy foods, get lots of exercise, and take your diabetes medicine.
- Get regular medical check-ups.
- Tell your doctor if you have a family history of early heart disease.
Q. What are the signs of heart disease?
A. The signs of heart disease are chest pain, shortness of breath, feeling tired, feeling dizzy, and rapid or irregular heart beat. You may have none of these signs, just one sign, or all of these signs of heart disease. Call your doctor and get these signs checked out right away.
Q. I’ve heard that some women have different signs of heart disease than men. How can I make sure that I get the best care?
A. Some women experience chest pain differently from men. Make sure that your chest pain is taken seriously. If you are not happy with how your doctor is caring for you, see another doctor who will take your chest pain seriously. Talk with your doctor to see if you should be tested for heart disease.
Q. What are the tests to check for heart disease?
A. There are many ways to check for heart disease. Your doctor may do just one test or many of these tests to find out if you have heart disease.
- Medical history and a physical exam. Taking a medical history and doing a physical exam let the doctor know if you have any family history of heart disease and about your general health.
- Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) is a painless test that measures your heart’s electrical activity.
- Stress test or treadmill test is a painless test that measures your heart’s electrical activity when you are exercising.
- Echocardiography uses sound waves to show the size, shape, and movement of your heart.
- Nuclear scan measures how your heart muscle contracts as blood flows through the heart. The test is done by putting a small amount of radioactive material into your vein. The test looks at how much of the material is taken up by the heart muscle.
- Coronary angiography or arteriography can show places where the blood flow is slowed or blocked in your body. This test is done by putting a thin tube into an artery in your arm or leg up to your heart. Fluid is put into the tube and an x-ray is taken to show how the heart is pumping.
Q. What are the signs of a heart attack?
A. The signs of a heart attack are very bad chest pain that may move to your left arm or neck, weakness, dizziness, and nausea. Other signs include a feeling of heaviness, tightness, burning, pressure, or squeezing behind your breast bone and sometimes in your arms, neck, or jaw. Some people have no obvious signs that they are having a heart attack.
Q. What should I do if I think that I am having a heart attack?
A. Don’t take chances and don’t drive. Call 911 or your local emergency number right away. Doctors can give you medicine that can save your life.
Q. What is the connection between hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and heart disease?
A. Research has shown that hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for women who have gone through menopause (the change of life) may help keep their heart healthy. A woman on HRT takes hormone pills every day to replace the estrogen that her body stopped making after menopause. In studies, HRT has been shown to raise a woman’s good cholesterol level and lower her bad cholesterol level. This means that she has less chance of getting heart disease.
There are problems with HRT. Women have more chance of getting cancer of the uterus, gallbladder disease, migraine headaches, and possibly breast cancer than women who do not take HRT. Talk with you doctor to find out more about your choices and what is right for you.