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Heart disease and women

“Heart disease is the number one killer of women in the United States, affecting one out of every three women,” says Jyoti Sharma, M.D., a cardiologist at Piedmont Heart Institute. “That’s one woman dying every minute from heart disease.”

In fact, an overwhelming 90 percent of women in the United States have a least one risk factor for heart disease.

“It’s very, very important that we know our risk factors and we get appropriately screened,” she says. “A lot of heart disease is preventable. If we take action now, we can certainly prevent a lot of the bad outcomes.”

What is heart disease?

Heart disease a broad term that encompasses:

  • Coronary artery disease, or blockages in heart arteries  
  • Heart failure
  • Heart rhythm problems, or arrhythmias
  • Heart valve disease
  • Congenital heart disease

Heart disease risk factors in women vs. men

Men and women share many of the same heart disease risk factors, including:

  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Being overweight
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol

However, there are several conditions that make women significantly more likely to develop heart disease than men. These include:

  • Endocrine or hormonal abnormalities, like polycystic ovarian syndrome
  • Autoimmune or collagen vascular disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus
  • Pregnancy complications, including gestational diabetes, preeclampsia or gestational hypertension

Why heart disease is so deadly for women

“I think that heart disease among women is particularly deadly because women tend to present much later than men in their disease course,” explains Dr. Sharma. “They may not be aware that they’re suffering from heart disease. Their clinicians may also not be tuned in to some of the symptoms women are experiencing.”

Women often suffer nonspecific symptoms like fatigue and shortness of breath that can also be attributed to many less-serious conditions.

The statistics are startling.

“Since 1984, more women than men have died from heart disease,” she says. “And the gap continues to widen.”

How women can improve their outcomes

In addition to leading a healthy lifestyle, women can improve their chances of preventing heart disease by taking advantage of risk factor screening tools. One of those tools is Piedmont’s Women’s Heart Screening Program, which focuses on early detection of heart disease in women who currently don’t have any symptoms.

A comprehensive screening with a nurse practitioner includes:

  • A complete health history review
  • A physician exam
  • In-depth blood work

“If you do have any symptoms, you should certainly go see your doctor or your cardiologist right away,” says Dr. Sharma. “But for women who are just more curious and want to be educated about knowing their risk for developing heart disease, the women’s heart screening program is a great tool to help you know your risk.”   

Visit Piedmont Heart Institute for more information on the Women’s Heart Program. 

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