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Heart Disease and Women: Take It Personally

By Sarah Samaan, MD, FACC

Ready or not, there is a new face of heart disease It's you, it's me, it's all women, because we're all at risk. Most women fear breast cancer, and rightly so, but many of us haven't gotten the news that heart disease kills nine times as many women as breast cancer. What's more, thanks to fast food, increasing levels of obesity, and lack of regular exercise, death from heart disease is on the rise in women under 55. That means us. It's time to take control.

The good news is that preventing heart attacks and strokes is really not complicated. The healthier your heart, the more energetic, optimistic, and, let's face it, sexier you will feel.
First, let's blow up a few old-school myths about women and heart disease.

Myth #1: It's a man's world
Although heart disease tends to rear its ugly head about 10 years later in women than in men, it is by far our number one risk, killing more women than all cancers combined.

Myth #2: Heart attacks only happen to old people
The truth is that half of all women's heart attacks occur before the age of 70. Every year, more than 8000 American women under age 45 will suffer a heart attack. In fact, cholesterol buildup is happening earlier in life than ever before, and 15% of teenagers now have the beginning stages of the disease.

Myth #3: Heart pain strikes men and women in the same way
The classic symptoms of a heart attack include a deep aching pain in the chest (which sometimes radiates to the left arm or neck), shortness of breath, nausea, and a cold sweat. Men will frequently suffer warning pains in the month leading up to a heart attack, yet only about a third of women will experience these symptoms. Women are more likely to feel overwhelming fatigue, nausea, and back pain.

Myth #4: Heart disease is in the genes
While our family history is important, only about 15% of heart attacks can be blamed on genetics alone. The most critical risk factors include high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, high cholesterol, obesity, and an unhealthy diet. If your mother developed heart disease before 60, or your father before age 50, consider this a red flag. Visit your doctor and take extra precautions to keep your heart healthy and strong.  

The fact is that up to 85 percent of heart disease is preventable, and 70 percent can be prevented with simple changes in diet, exercise, and lifestyle. With such easy ways to keep heart disease from striking, I encourage every woman to take it personally and stop heart disease before it even starts.  

About the Author

Sarah Samaan, MD, FACC practices cardiology at Legacy Heart Center in Plano, Texas and at the Baylor Heart Hospital.  Dr. Samaan is the author of the critically acclaimed book The Smart Woman's Guide to Heart Health (Brown Books Publishing Group 2009. For the past three years, Texas Monthly magazine has named Dr. Samaan as a "Texas Super Doctor." She is a fellow of the American College of Cardiology and was listed as one of "America's Top Physicians" by Consumers' Research Council of America.

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