By: Diana Barnes-Brown for Heart1
Heart disease is the #1 killer of women in the United States. On Feb. 4, thousands of awareness advocates will don red ribbons and other red apparel to raise consciousness about what is often referred to as the “silent killer” of women. Meanwhile, heart experts are hoping to turn education about the epidemic into a year-round process.
“Heart disease” is actually used as a medical shorthand term to refer to coronary heart disease, a condition that develops over a number of years, affecting the blood vessels of the heart, and often resulting in heart attack – a sudden loss of blood flow to a section of heart tissue, sometimes causing tissue death – and, in turn, severe disability and death.
A number of misconceptions have helped to perpetuate ignorance about the prevalence of heart disease in women.
Some make the incorrect assumption that heart disease can be cured at any point by surgery. In fact, the earlier heart disease is detected, the better the chance surgery has of correcting problems that have arisen, but surgery is by no means a guaranteed solution for advanced heart disease.
Also, many are uneducated about the risk factors of this common health problem. Still others have been influenced by stereotypes perpetuated in entertainment media, which men suffering from heart attacks as a result of their busy, stress-filled lives, and neglect to address how heart disease develops, or the fact that many women suffer from the same problems.
One of the most important things for women and those who care about them to remember is that once heart disease develops, it can be managed to an extent, but never cured. Heart disease develops as a result of irreversible damage to blood vessels, and measures to treat it involve repairing weak circulatory pathways to restore blood flow (and thus oxygen flow) to the heart, and stopping unhealthy lifestyle habits that could worsen the damage. However, since the blood vessels have already been weakened by the condition at this point, there is little that can be done to prevent repeated problems from occurring, or change the elevated risk of serious medical consequences.
The best way to avoid life-threatening complications of heart disease is to reduce the risk of developing it in the first place, although reducing risk factors can significantly improve and prolong the lives of those already diagnosed with heart disease, as well. General risk factors for heart disease include:
• Sedentary lifestyles • Obesity • High blood pressure • Smoking • Diabetes • High cholesterol • A family history of coronary heart disease • Age
For women in particular, 55 is the critical age for heart risk. Also, recent studies from the Women’s Health Initiative have found that hormone therapy – for menopause or certain reproductive health related reasons, for example – may increase risk of heart disease, while only a handful of research results have pointed to evidence to the contrary.
In addition to fighting risk factors in their own lives, women can be instrumental in spreading the word about the real statistics involving heart disease. Information published by the United States Government’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute notes that though heart disease is the most common killer of women, but few know the statistics, or what they really mean in terms of day-to-day living.
One in every three women dies of heart disease, while breast cancer kills one in 30. Roughly three million American women have had a heart attack, while two-thirds of those did or will not make a full recovery, and two-thirds of them had no symptoms prior to their heart attacks. Finally, only 13 percent of women consider heart disease to be their own greatest health risk, which means that 87 percent of women who develop heart disease will likely remain unaware of their risk level until an emergency forces them to take notice.
While these statistics are sobering at best, the good news is that it is estimated that Americans could lower heart risk by over 80 percent by simply modifying their lifestyles to eliminate heart risk factors.
Regular checkups can help women be more aware of what risk factors apply to them, and doctors and health care givers are trained to help patients make wise decisions about how to improve their heart health, including developing a lifestyle modification plan that maps out the needed changes and how to implement them. Women who are concerned about heart health should work actively with their doctors and caregivers to develop a plan that works for them.
Though the statistics of women’s heart health are less than happy at present, with proper attention and advocacy, women, as well as their doctors, caregivers, family and friends can help change the statistics and improve women’s health outcomes all over the nation.