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Heart Health for Men and Women

A heart attack.  Most people can name a man that has had one, been warned about having one, or perhaps even died of one.  But can you name a woman that has had a heart attack?  Before 1987, more men than women died of heart disease because of a variety of differences in biology and health habits. More men smoked cigarettes and tended to drink more alcohol, for example. The rise in deaths related to heart disease, in the late 1980’s, coincided with the entry of women into the workforce in equal numbers as men.  

But after 1987, there was a reduction in death rates among men, while women began to surpass men in heart-disease deaths. Historically, research and innovation in heart disease was for men and by men, and women were left by the wayside to die — literally.

While this may sound alarming, we need to understand the human body and how different men are from women.  “What’s good for the goose, is good for the gander” has been a common misconception.

Quick time line:

  • 100 years ago … a group of physicians and social workers formed an organization called the Association for the Prevention and Relief of Heart Disease in New York City.  In 1924 it became the American Heart Association.
  • 70 years ago … In the early 1950s, University of California researcher John Gofman and his associates identified today’s two well-known cholesterol types: LDL and HDL. He discovered that men who developed atherosclerosis commonly had elevated levels of LDL and low levels of HDL.
  • 60 years ago … F. Mason Sones, a pediatric cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic, developed the technique for producing high-quality diagnostic images of the coronary arteries.
  • 50 years ago …  treatments like bypass surgery and percutaneous balloon angioplasty were first used.
  • 6 years ago … a new blood test that may be able to predict who is at high risk for the occurrence of a heart attack.

Research and hard work is starting to help scientists understand the differences but until women understand, the numbers may continue upward.  There are a few risk factors for a heart disease that most people know:

  • Smoking. Smoking is a greater risk factor for heart disease in women than it is in men.
  • Family history of early heart disease. This appears to be a greater risk factor in women than in men.
  • Diabetes. Women with diabetes are more likely to develop heart disease than are men with diabetes. Also, because diabetes can change the way you feel pain, you’re at greater risk of having a silent heart attack — without symptoms.

These factors are not commonly considered when you think of a heart attack:

  • Mental stress and depression. Stress and depression affect women’s hearts more than men’s. Depression makes it difficult to maintain a healthy lifestyle activity. A lack of physical activity is a major risk factor for heart disease. Some research has found women to be less active than men.
  • Menopause. Low levels of estrogen after menopause pose a significant risk of developing disease in smaller blood vessels.
  • Pregnancy complications. High blood pressure or diabetes during pregnancy can increase the mother’s long-term risk of high blood pressure and diabetes. The conditions also make women more likely to get heart disease.
  • Inflammatory diseases. Rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and others can increase the risk of heart disease in both men and women.

So if you want to increase your chances of a heart attack then obesity, smoking, heavy alcohol (4 – 5 drinks a night), diabetes, hormones like estrogen, high testosterone and some have genetic issues will all begin the process.

To lower your risk, exercise and seek a diet without sugar and add a high concentrated fish oil supplement. The first step is to see your primary care physician.  They will be able to walk you through the steps for YOUR body.  Remember that just as a man’s heart attack differs from that of a woman’s, our bodies are all different.  If you feel that any of these factors can apply to you, pick up the phone and call your doctor.

Women are more likely than men to have heart attack symptoms unrelated to chest pain, such as:

  • Neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back or abdominal discomfort
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain in one or both arms
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Unusual fatigue
  • Indigestion

These symptoms may be vague and not as noticeable as the crushing chest pain often associated with heart attacks.  Women tend to have symptoms more often when resting, or even when asleep, than they do in men.  This is why you should be evaluated BEFORE you get the heart attack!  If you don’t have a primary doctor, call your closest Star Valley Health clinic and ask to be seen.