February 5 is the day that the American Heart Association asks everyone to wear red in order to raise awareness for heart disease in women. Created in 2004, Go RED day was designed to promote healthier lives for women of all ages.
Today 1 in 3 women are affected by heart disease in the United States, and nearly 44 million American women are living with heart disease. Even though cardiovascular disease is quite prevalent in women, only 1 in 5 women are aware that heart disease is their greatest health risk.
While we have made great strides in reducing cardiovascular death rates in women over the last 20 years, we still must continue to educate and advocate for women of all ages—this advocacy begins with dispelling the common myths surrounding heart disease in general. It is my hope that through efforts such as the Go Red campaign, we can promote better heart health for millions of American women. Ultimately, we must engage women and their families in order to most effectively eliminate needless cardiac related deaths in the next decade.
Myth 1: Heart Disease is predominantly a disease of men
The truth: More women than men die of heart disease every single year. Heart disease kills more women than all types of cancer combined. While most women believe that their greatest health risk comes from breast or uterine cancer—in actuality, a woman’s greatest health risk is from heart disease and stroke. Nearly 90 percent of all women have at least one risk factor for heart disease.
Myth 2: Heart Disease affects men and women in the same way
The truth: Heart disease affects men and women differently. Biologic and hormonal differences in men and women contribute to the ways in which heart disease develops and progresses. Studies have shown that after menopause, women have an even higher risk for heart disease—estrogens seem to promote better cholesterol profiles.
Women tend to present to a healthcare provider far later in the course of the disease and have more diffuse blockages in their heart (coronary) arteries. These blockages in coronary arteries result in heart attacks. Heart attacks have several commonly recognized symptoms. Men tend to have more typical symptoms like crushing chest pain and associated shortness of breath, nausea, radiation of pain to neck or jaw.
Women, in contrast, may have very atypical symptoms and some women have no symptoms at all. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly two-thirds of women who have sudden cardiac death due to heart disease have no symptoms. While women may certainly have the same symptoms as men, it is more common for them to present with more vague and non-specific symptoms such as feelings of dread, anxiety, back pain and flu-like symptoms.
Heart attacks appear to be much more severe and carry a higher risk for death and complications in women as compared to men. For example, in the first year following a heart attack women are 40 percent more likely to die than men. In the six years following a heart attack, women are twice as likely to have a second event as compared to men with similar disease.
Myth 3: Women with heart disease are treated the same as men
The truth: Women with heart disease are under-treated and underserved. Women are not screened for and diagnosed with heart disease as aggressively as men. Many times women are sent home from the hospital with atypical symptoms only to find out later that they had suffered a heart attack. When women are diagnosed with heart disease, they are less likely to be treated with the most advanced and aggressive therapies. Men are more likely to undergo cardiac catheterization or coronary artery bypass operations to restore blood flow to the heart after a blockage occurs. Women are more likely to have both minor and major complications from invasive procedures but, in many cases, women seem to see a greater benefit as compared to men. After suffering a heart attack and being treated in the hospital, women are far less likely to be referred for cardiac rehabilitation and are also less likely to be placed on important medications that have been shown to prevent future events.
MYTH 4: It can’t happen to me
The truth: Heart disease does not discriminate. The risk factors for heart disease are the same in both men and women:
--High Blood Pressure
--Family History of Heart Disease
Nearly 80 percent of all women have at least one risk factor for heart disease. More importantly, many of these risk factors are modifiable. While breast cancer affects 1in 8 women, heart disease affects one in three. Chronic heart disease and suffering a heart attack can result in physical limitation, significant decrease in quality of life, depression and ultimately heart failure.
SO, WHAT CAN WOMEN DO?
Women must take control of their own health.
The first step in preventing heart disease-related deaths in American women is engagement. Every woman must know her risk for heart disease. It is essential that women partner with their physician or other healthcare provider in order to assess their health status and identify at risk behaviors or other high risk conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
You must be able to connect and effectively communicate with your healthcare provider in order to work together to reduce risk. Ask questions and never accept an answer or an opinion from a medical professional that does not adequately address your concerns.
Women must advocate for themselves and each other (family, friends, etc.) in order to improve awareness of the risks for heart disease in women.
For women with heart disease—tell your story to others. Make sure that all of the women in your life are aware of the risks and help them get the care they desperately need.
This Friday, lets all GO RED for WOMEN and show our support by wearing RED!
Dr. Kevin Campbell is an assistant professor of medicine for the division of cardiology at the University of North Carolina. He is the author of “Women and Cardiovascular Disease: Addressing Disparities in Care." Follow him on on Twitter or visit his website.