As women, taking care of our bodies can sometimes feel like a full-time job. I also think a lot of us can attest to not always making time for that particular job, maybe putting its related tasks and responsibilities on the back burner for a little too long. In our productivity-driven society, we’ve prioritized so many things over our physical and mental health, to the point where it can be dangerous. Ignoring symptoms, trying to self-diagnose or self-medicate, or simply not listening to our bodies when something is wrong are all too common for women in America. There’s a subtle yet pervasive stigma for women around being thought to complain about our health that often perpetuates these behaviors. Women frequently think, “I’ll be fine, I’m just overreacting” or “I don’t have the time (or money/resources/support) to see a doctor right now” or even “This is normal and happens to all women”—generally down-playing what can sometimes turn out to be symptoms of serious health conditions. This stigma plays a huge role in many issues that women face, including heart disease, which is the leading cause of death of women in the United States.
In 2013, the Center for Disease Control recorded 289,758 deaths of women caused by heart disease (1 in 4 women). That’s one woman almost every 80 seconds. The American Heart Association reports that about 90% of women in the U.S. have one or more risk factors for heart disease or stroke. They also claim that fewer women than men survive their first heart attack. The CDC has created an informative Interactive Atlas of Heart Disease and Stroke that provides statistics by state. Obviously, heart disease is not something to be taken lightly, no matter what age we are. This is where breaking down the stigma surrounding women’s symptoms and paying attention to our bodies really becomes key. We can reduce this overwhelming number if we educate ourselves about heart disease and speak openly about how we are feeling on a day-to-day basis.
There are so many different diseases and conditions that fall under the umbrella term “heart disease,” it can be difficult to keep them all straight. Some of these include: stroke, heart attacks, atrial fibrillation, different blood vessel diseases, and heart failure. In general, most of the conditions associated with heart disease carry the same signs and symptoms as well as risk factors. Aside from being discouraged from talking about their symptoms, many women may not mention them simply due to lack of knowledge. The symptoms women experience, during a heart attack specifically, are very different than the much more frequently discussed symptoms that men experience. We are taught that a heart attack is associated with things like searing chest pain, where one study mentioned by Baptist Health South Florida found that almost half of women experiencing a heart attack feel no chest pain at all. Women should pay attention to things like unusual upper back or abdominal discomfort, being out of breath, sweating, light-headedness, dizziness, nausea, arm pain (one or both), and unusual fatigue, according the Mayo Clinic. It’s easy to see how one could disregard these signs and pass them off as something minor, but speaking up could save your life.
As mentioned, there are some common risk factors that have been shown to lead to heart disease and other heart conditions. Smoking, being overweight or obese, drinking in excess, and not knowing your numbers (cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels if diabetes is present) instantly put you at risk for developing heart disease. It is also important to be aware of your family history of illnesses, as well as how your age and ethnicity play into your levels of risk. Research shows that older women and women from racial and ethnic minorities are more at risk for heart disease.
The most important factor when discussing any health epidemic, especially heart disease, is prevention. Luckily, there are some controllable lifestyle factors when it comes to heart disease that, if adopted conscientiously, can put women on the right track to staying healthy. The American Heart Association has a wonderful guide that shows what you can do to help prevent heart disease according to your age. Some things women should make sure they do at every age are:
- Eat healthily—avoid excess sodium, trans fats and saturated fats, red meat, and excess sugar. Try to eat lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats.
- Stay active—whether it’s going for a brisk walk or sticking to a strict, vigorous exercise program, physical activity keeps your heart healthy and has lots of other benefits. The AHA has a guideline for exercise that every adult should try and follow to stay healthy.
- Avoid smoking, binge drinking, and educate yourself about your health, your body, and the warning signs of heart disease.
Besides taking steps to manage our own risks for heart disease, there is a lot women can do to get involved and raise awareness about the importance of heart health. The Heart Truth is a national program designed to raise awareness, education, and motivate women to take action around heart health. Go Red for Women is another campaign helping to increase knowledge about heart disease in women by providing a number of useful resources. If nothing else, you can contribute by being aware of and listening to your body, talking about how you’re feeling physically, seeking help when you feel something isn’t right, and always encouraging women around you to do the same.