As women, we know it’s important to get regular checkups to screen breast cancer, cervical cancer and other female-specific health concerns. What many of us don’t think about, however, is monitoring for signs of heart disease — even though it’s the leading cause of death for women in the United States.
The good news is there are steps you can take to protect your heart, starting with understanding why you may be at risk.
Women Have a Unique Risk for Heart Disease
Men and women share many of the same risk factors for heart disease, including smoking, obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.
“But while heart disease can be preventable, women tend to prioritize care for others instead of themselves,” says Laura DeBenedetti, MD, FACC, a cardiologist with ProMedica Physicians. “You often have many people you’re caring for in addition to yourself. So, self-care — including maintaining a healthy diet, exercising and getting enough sleep — can be difficult as you’re working to care for so many others in your life,” she says.
Managing busy home and work lives means women might also be likely to experience long-term stress, which increases the stress hormone cortisol in the body. Cortisol, in turn, affects the way the body controls blood pressure and blood sugar. And, over time, all of these factors can contribute to heart disease.
How Heart Attacks Look Different for Women
When it comes to heart attacks, the most common symptom for both men and women is chest pain or discomfort. However, women are more likely to experience lesser-known heart attack symptoms, such as:
- Back or jaw pain.
- New or profound fatigue.
- New or profound indigestion.
- Shortness of breath.
If you have concerns about your heart, it’s important to speak up. Physicians now have a greater understanding of how to help women who are experiencing signs and symptoms. If you think you may be having a heart attack, call 911.
Starting with Slow, Positive Changes
Some risk factors for heart disease, such as family history, are outside of your control. But there’s still a lot you can do to keep your heart healthy. Dr. DeBenedetti recommends:
- Establishing a relationship with a physician. Talking about and monitoring things like your blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol will go a long way in catching any potential signals of heart disease before any damage is done to your heart.
- Finding a physical activity or exercise regimen you enjoy. You’re more likely to keep up with exercise when it’s something you like — and even look forward to — doing. Aim to exercise for at least 30 minutes, three times a week, unless otherwise directed by your doctor.
- Quitting smoking. Even if you’ve been a long-term smoker, quitting now will lower your risk of heart attack. When you’re ready, ProMedica’s Tobacco Cessation Program offers support for every step of your journey.
- Making changes to your diet. A diet that includes plenty of lean proteins, fresh fruits and vegetables will go a long way in safeguarding your heart. We know change can be hard, so it’s okay to start slow. Even just having healthier snacks within reach is progress.
Know Your Heart Is Worth It
Remember this is a marathon, not a sprint. It can be hard to make lifestyle changes overnight. Take it one day at a time. And if you veer off track, don’t beat yourself up. Just stay focused on how you can get back to making healthier choices — and remind yourself why you’re doing it.
Keeping your heart healthy will improve your quality of life, help you stay active as you get older and can potentially even prolong your life. “Do what you can that’s in your control,” Dr. DeBenedetti says. “None of this is easy. I work on it myself, every day. But these changes can add years to your life and literal life to your years.”
Getting quick, expert care during a heart attack is vital. Learn how to spot a heart attack and get life-saving care.