Heart disease is not only a man’s disease

woman making heart, heart

Article provided by Sharonne N. Hayes M.D., a preventive cardiologist and Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Mayo Clinic

The concept of ‘stress at work’ is, more often than not, considered to be simply part of the job.  

Modern workplace culture sometimes subscribes to the idea that high stress is necessary for career success. But stress, particularly when unrelieved or unaddressed over time, can impact your physical health – such as increasing the risk of early onset of heart disease. Often considered a man’s disease, heart disease is actually the #1 cause of death in women. And because heart disease symptoms in women can sometimes differ from those in men, women often don’t know what to look for. Women with heart disease also more often have missed or delayed diagnoses by their health care team, a potentially deadly combination.

The problem is, symptoms can be vague and not as conspicuous as the crushing chest pain typically associated with heart attack, as this is not always severe or the most noticeable symptom. While most men and women have some type of chest pain or pressure when having a heart attack, women are more likely than men to have other symptoms, such as upper body and abdominal discomfort, shortness of breath, nausea or light-headedness. The lack of awareness around heart disease in women, and the fact that symptoms are hard to spot, makes it important for women to learn more.

The good news, the most common types of heart disease are largely preventable. Traditional risk factors for coronary artery disease — such as smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and being sedentary,—can all be a product of unhealthy lifestyle patterns.  Less well recognized but important factors in the development of heart disease in women also include menopause, mental stress and depression, autoimmune and inflammatory conditions and pregnancy complications.

Living a healthy lifestyle can undoubtedly help reduce the risk of heart disease. Women of all ages should take heart disease seriously – especially those with a family history of heart disease. Knowledge is power. If you know your risk factors and the symptoms that might signal heart disease, and then take action, you can begin to reduce your risk of heart disease. To begin caring for your heart and reducing the risk of heart disease, try these heart-healthy strategies:

  • Quit smoking: If you don’t smoke, don’t start. Try to avoid exposure to second-hand smoke, which can also damage blood vessels.
  • Move more: Make time for at least 30-45 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week – such as walking at a brisk pace, taking the stairs, riding a bike to work or to run errands.
  • Maintain a healthy weight: Ask your doctor what is a healthy weight for your body. If you’re overweight, losing even a few pounds can lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of developing diabetes.
  • Eat a healthy diet:Opt for whole grains, 5 to 9 daily servings of a variety of fruits and vegetables, low-fat or fat-free dairy products and lean meats. Avoid saturated or trans-fats, added sugars and high amounts of salt.
  • Manage your stress: Chronic stress can cause damage to the lining of your arteries which can increase your risk of heart disease. Add that to the often unhealthy coping strategies such as eating an unhealthy diet, being sedentary and smoking, and the risk of stress is compounded. Learn how to recognize and address your stress in a healthy way.
  • Limit alcohol: If you have more than one drink a day, cut back. One drink is approximately 12 ounces (360 millilitres) of beer, 5 ounces (150 millilitres) of wine or 1.5 ounces (45 millilitres) of distilled spirits, such as vodka or whiskey.
  • Know (and share) your specific risk factors: Pregnancy complications such as preeclampsia, high blood pressure or diabetes, and having a small full term baby or premature birth can signal future heart disease risk, as can the presence of autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus. Make sure your health care team knows about these factors so they can better manage your risks.
  • Manage other health conditions:Work with your health care team to control high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes which increase your risk of heart disease.

About the author

Sharonne N. Hayes M.D. is a cardiologist and Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine. Her research areas include gender-based cardiology and caring for a wide variety of cardiovascular conditions that occur primarily and/or differently in women, spanning prevention, diagnosis and treatments across women’s’ lifespan.

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