Heart disease is responsible for one in three deaths in women, more than the number of all cancer deaths combined. The good news is, heart disease is highly preventable. A key part of prevention is becoming better informed about risk factors and making necessary lifestyle changes. “Heart health is really foundational to good health,” says Dr. David Jones, a board-certified cardiologist with Palouse Heart Center at Pullman Regional Hospital. “The lifestyle choices and habits that lead to being healthy—those things will also often lead to better heart health.”
Heart Disease and Risk Factors
“Heart disease is best thought of as any ailment that affects the heart, and thinking more expansively, the cardiovascular system,” explains Dr. Jones. Such ailments include disturbances of heart rhythm, stroke, disorders of the vascular system, and congestive heart failure.
Many risk factors can be controlled. Dr. Jones lists body weight, activity level, dietary selections, smoking, and overuse of alcohol. As for the things one can’t necessarily control, such as family history or having a disease like diabetes, the fortunate aspect is these conditions can also be treated with medications.
“I think it’s a common misconception that women have completely different symptoms or a completely different experience with heart attacks or angina than what men go through,” remarks Dr. Jones. “The truth is, women are a little more likely to get what we will call an atypical symptom.” Atypical symptoms include nausea, shortness of breath, back pain, neck pain, jaw pain, or shoulder pain. “Still, the most common symptom for women is chest pain.”
How does a woman know if she’s having a heart attack? “If the symptoms feel severe, there is a sense of impending doom, they are passing out, or it’s really uncomfortable, then a 9-1-1 call or trip to the emergency department is in order,” advises Dr. Jones. If the symptoms are much milder, or they come and go, contacting one’s primary care provider would be a reasonable first step.
Know Your Numbers
Frequently we hear the advice, “Know your numbers.” But, what are those numbers? Dr. Jones shares a few he likes his patients to focus on: ideal body weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels. Knowing these numbers makes it possible to strategize the lifestyle changes necessary to reduce risk of heart disease. And, there is a bonus to knowing and working on these numbers. “There are other diseases that are affected by the same risk factors,” states Dr. Jones. “Some of them are cancer.”