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Women and heart disease: Look for these warning signs

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Mon, Jan 29th 2018 12:45 pm
February is Heart Month
Guest editorial by Dr. Benjamin Rueda, M.D., cardiologist
Mount St. Mary's Hospital
When surveyed several years ago, most women believed they would die of breast cancer or other cancers and not cardiovascular disease. Yet for decades, heart disease and stroke have been the No. 1 killer of women, exceeding all cancers combined as the leading cause of death in women. This statistic still comes as a surprise to many women, yet we have a greater understanding of this unfortunate phenomenon in more recent years.
Why does the misconception exist that heart disease is a man's disease? The reasons are many. Research studies to date have included only small percentages of women in their trials. Men have represented the bulk of patients studied and, therefore, the focus historically has been on men's hearts. Another reason for the misconception is explained by findings that women's hearts behave differently than men's in terms of how heart disease develops and how women's hearts react. Perhaps the biggest reason for the misconception is that women's heart disease may produce symptoms unlike the typical symptoms that have been described in men and historically taught in medical textbooks. This is changing in recent years.
Coronary artery disease is a process of narrowing, blockages and clotting of the arteries that supply blood to the heart. Without adequate blood flow, symptoms of heart disease begin. Typical symptoms that both men and women can experience include chest tightness, chest pressure or chest pain, often occurring during exertion, relieved with rest, and these may be accompanied with shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, jaw pain or arm pain or arm heaviness.
Women's symptoms can be different and, therefore, more difficult to diagnose. Some women may have marked fatigue, pain in the pit of the stomach, back pain, shoulder pain, shortness of breath alone or palpitations. Some of these symptoms may, in fact, be a sign of other problems, but coronary blockages also need to be considered when these symptoms occur.
These "atypical" symptoms may get treatment, but may not improve. Women need to know they can seek further medical opinions.
Cardiovascular disease is not just a man's disease. Women should pay attention to their hearts and talk to their physicians about keeping a healthy heart. Good risk factor management with weight control, smoking cessation, good cholesterol control, treatment of hypertension and diabetes, and keeping an active lifestyle and proper nutrition, all help in reducing women's cardiovascular risk.
Dr. Benjamin Rueda is a cardiologist at The Cardiac Center at Mount St. Mary's Hospital. The information in this column is not intended to diagnose individual conditions. Readers should see their own doctors about specific problems.

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