The No. 1 killer of women worldwide today is heart disease. Nearly 8.6 million women die worldwide annually from heart disease, compared to 400,000 who die from breast cancer.
A major factor impacting mortality rates has been a knowledge deficit regarding the prevalence of heart disease among females. Women themselves and even some physicians have failed to realize how many women are affected. That has been a hindrance to women receiving the prompt and aggressive treatment needed to prevent permanent heart damage.
Dr. Amina Qazi, MD, practices at Northeast Cardiology Associates in Bangor and is the current governor of Maine’s chapter of the American College of Cardiology. She said recently that “in the past, men were the primary focus for cardiovascular disease prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. The bulk of the early research studies included primarily men in their 60s.”
Qazi said the tide is now beginning to turn, and physicians are becoming aware of just how prevalent heart disease is among women.
“While disparities still exist, the medical community is making gains in understanding the prevalence of cardiovascular disease in women and the differences between men and women,” she said.
A major difference that must be understood by women themselves and physicians is that women often present different heart attack symptoms than men. “Women tend to present more commonly with atypical symptoms like back pain, trouble breathing, fatigue, or jaw pain as opposed to the classic heavy chest pain,” Qazi said. “Furthermore, many women notice warning signs, but choose to ignore them.”
According to Qazi, “Participants in an American Heart Association study said they hesitated to call for help because they were uncertain, thought they could treat themselves, or were simply too busy with family demands.”
Qazi said the lesson to be learned is that anyone experiencing heart attack symptoms should call 911 immediately. She also recommends taking a 325-milligram chewable aspirin tablet at the onset of symptoms. However, she stressed that women should not delay calling 911.
“Aspirin is one of the oldest, most beneficial, and cheapest drugs that we treat heart attacks with,” she said. “I feel that it is very important to emphasize that immediate medical attention should be sought by calling 911.”
Qazi confirmed that people receiving medical treatment within 1-3 hours of the onset of heart attack symptoms have the best prognosis. “This is particularly true of heart attacks that result from a 100-percent blocked artery,” she said. “The sooner the artery is opened, the less damage to the heart muscle. The less damage to the heart muscle, the better the prognosis.”
Qazi said that risk factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, obesity, physical inactivity, a family history of early heart disease, and age (55 years or older women). She said the best way to treat heart disease is to prevent it.
“It is very important not to smoke, maintain a healthy weight, stay active (30 minutes of brisk aerobic exercise most days of the week), maintain a healthy low cholesterol, and low-saturated fat diet rich with fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins,” she said.
Qazi reported that the prevalence of heart disease increases after menopause, but heart attacks can occur even in much younger women with risk factors.
“The prevalence of heart disease in women certainly increases with age and becomes particularly prevalent in women after menopause,” said Qazi. “Premenopausal women have some protection. Having said that, heart disease can occur in much younger women, especially if they smoke cigarettes, are diabetic, or have family members who have had a heart attack at a young age. We see heart attacks in women as young as 30 if they have the previously listed risk factors.”
Qazi concluded that heart disease was always present in women, but its prevalence among women was underestimated.
“Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women and is more deadly than all forms of cancer combined,” she said. “Heart disease causes one-in-three women’s deaths each year, killing approximately one woman every minute.”