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Breast cancer kills one in 31 American women annually, but 1 in three American women will die of heart disease.
In fact, heart disease kills more women than all cancers combined.
“Women actually die more often than men do when they have a heart attack,” said Linda Hunter, chief nursing officer at Spring View Hospital.
Yet, to many people, heart disease is considered more of a men’s issue. That’s part of the reason the American Heart Association has been trying to raise awareness of the risks of heart disease to women.
Sixty-four percent of women who die from coronary heart disease do not show any signs, according to the AHA.
Chest pains can be a common indicator that someone is having a heart attack, but women will sometimes present different symptoms. These can include shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting, and back or jaw pain.
According to Hunter, women may mistake potential signs of a heart attack for something else. If they start showing signs, however, they need to call 911 to get help.
“They don’t need to delay reaching treatment if there’s anything wrong,” Hunter said. “Sometimes we ignore our symptoms before it’s too late.”
Hunter also said people are better off calling an ambulance rather than trying to drive themselves to the hospital.
Emergency personnel are trained to treat heart attack patients and ambulances have equipment to help them begin treatment before they arrive at the hospital, she said. If someone goes into cardiac arrest while driving, he or she won’t have a way to get immediate treatment.
The AHA also encourages everyone to learn his or her risks of heart disease.
One factor people can’t control is family history, but knowing how common heart disease is in their family is a benefit in creating a plan to stay heart healthy. The AHA even created a diagram for people to record how common heart disease is among relatives. (The diagram can be downloaded here: http://goo.gl/J0tyZF.)
Cholesterol levels can also affect anyone’s risk of heart disease. HDL (good) cholesterol levels of 60 mg/L and higher are considered protective against heart disease. HDL levels of less than 50 mg/L are considered too low.
On the other hand, LDL (bad) cholesterol levels of more than 160 mg/L are considered high. The optimal level of LDL is less than 100 mg/L, according to the AHA.
High blood pressure is another factor that can affect an individual’s risk of heart disease. Normal blood pressure is less than 120/80. The first number represents the systolic pressure, which measures pressure in the arteries when the heart beats. The second number is the diastolic pressure, which measures the pressure in the arteries between heartbeats.
A person is considered to have high blood pressure, or hypertension, if his or her systolic pressure is higher than 140 or their diastolic pressure is higher than 90. People who are more than 20 pounds overweight, people who have a family history of blood pressure and women who have reached menopause are more likely to have hypertension.
Both birth control and pregnancy can increase a woman’s risk of having high blood pressure. African-American and Hispanic woman are also more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, according to the AHA.
Knowing your risks is only part of the equation, however. To reduce the risk of suffering from heart disease, people must also act to control the factors they can.
“The good news is that 80 percent of heart disease can be completely prevented if we take the right steps,” AHA Communications Director Matt Rountree said.
Eating healthy, exercising and not smoking are the three biggest things that anyone can do to minimize their risk of heart disease, according to Rountree.
The AHA has a website with a collection of tips on living and eating healthy (available here: http://goo.gl/pllkcM.).
With regard to exercise, this doesn’t mean everyone needs to run marathons or do a P90X-type program. Hunter said walking for 20 to 30 minutes three to five times a week is enough to make a difference.
For people who haven’t exercised in a long time, she recommended easing into it. Hunter also said people with smart phones might be able to download apps that can help provide motivation and track their progress.
“Start out slow,” she said. “Five minutes here, five minutes there.”