Coronary heart disease is the most common form of heart disease. Often referred to simply as “heart disease,” it develops over time and can start as early as the teenage years. During mid-life, a woman’s risk for heart disease starts to rise dramatically. In part, this is because a woman’s body stops producing estrogen. Also, mid-life is a time when women tend to develop factors that increase their risk for heart disease.
For the most part, signs and symptoms of women’s heart problems are the same as men. However, unexplained exertion changes, like undue fatigue or shortness of breath during activity may be early signs in women. About a third of women experience no chest pain at all when having a heart attack, and 71% of women report flu-like symptoms for two weeks to a month prior to having more acute chest discomfort or severe shortness of breath. These milder symptoms are often under-reported.
I encourage women to pay attention to subtle changes when brought on by activity and report them to their health care provider. It’s important to state a clear reason for your visit—to everyone from the receptionist to the nurse to the physician. There is no harm in stating, “I am concerned about my risk for a future heart attack,” or asking, “How do we know these symptoms are not coming from my heart?”
Unless treated, heart disease continues to worsen. One in 14 women aged 45-64 has heart disease, and this increases to 1 in 7 for women over age 65. However, it’s never too late to take action against heart disease. Older women, especially those who already have heart disease, can reduce their risk of developing heart-related problems. Often, making lifestyle changes is all that’s needed. In fact, women can lower their heart disease risk by as much as 82 percent just by leading a healthy lifestyle. That includes
- Not smoking.
- Maintaining healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
- Maintaining a healthy weight and keep your body mass index (BMI) in the normal range. To calculate your BMI, visit RMHOnline.com BMI Calculator.
- Getting physical by doing at least 30 minutes a day of moderately intense physical activity, such as brisk walking.
- Keeping diabetes in check. Nearly 6 million women have been diagnosed with diabetes and another 2.8 million are undiagnosed.
Whatever your age, you can take action to improve your heart health.