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Why women don’t always recognize their heart disease risk

Last Modified: May 11, 2023

Heart Health

Women heart

Over the years, we have learned more about the risks of heart disease occurrence in women, and yet, there are still barriers that hinder females from fully understanding the factors at play and getting the care they need. Mark O’Shaughnessy, MD, PPG – Cardiology, recently spoke at the Parkview Heart Institute’s annual Love Your Heart Expo, where he shared some sobering facts and essential clarification on the subject.

Gender-specific obstacles

Despite the immense research on women and heart disease over the past 20 years, statistics show that so much more can be done to fight the growing health concerns. Some of the barriers at play include: 

  • Media – Various outlets where people turn for information create confusion by sending mixed messages about heart health. Guidance can be inconsistent from source to source and the general focus tends to be on men.
  • Self-awareness – 36% of women do not perceive themselves to be at risk. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 44% of females in the United States are living with some form of heart disease and just over half (56%) recognize that it is the number 1 killer.. An “it won’t happen to me” mentality can be very dangerous.
  • Medical guidance – 25% of women say their healthcare provider did not say heart health was important. It’s crucial that medical professionals recognize the risks.
  • Pushing prevention – 20% of women say their healthcare providers did not clearly explain how they could change their risk status. There are simple lifestyle modifications (see below) that can greatly impact a woman’s cardiovascular wellness, and prioritizing prevention is a must.
  • Coverage – Physicians report a lack of insurance coverage as a barrier to assisting their patients with lifestyle changes.
  • Understanding the phases of change – As women age, their heart health becomes even more at risk. For example, heart disease rates increase for women 6-10 years post-menopause and early menopause can further increase your risk for heart disease. Blood and cholesterol levels increase after menopause as well. It’s important for females to recognize the shifts in their body and be vigilant in preventative measures and conversations with their healthcare team.  
  • Making assumptions – It’s common for females to push aside the notion (and truth) that their symptoms could be a sign of a cardiac event. Don’t make the mistake of trying to explain your pain away. Learn to recognize the signs of heart trouble, including:

    –Shortness of breath
    –Flu-like symptoms
    –Back or neck pain
    –Unusual fatigue
    –Pressure or tightness in the chest

    When in doubt, get checked out!

Taking action

Now that you know some of the hurdles getting in the way of women addressing their risk of heart disease, you can move onto the next step–action! You can’t change your gender, age or genetics, but there are plenty of other risk factors you can alter. Making modifications to your daily habits is a simple (some more so than others) way to reduce the likelihood that you will experience a cardiovascular setback. Let’s get started …

Quit smoking
It’s time. Tobacco products offer no benefit to your health and only put you at a greater risk for health complications. I address this quite thoroughly here. If you are struggling, look into pharmaceutical products that can help and smoking cessation classes. It’s tough, but it’s worth it!

Get the digits
At the heart institute, we emphasize the importance of knowing your numbers. In relation to cardiovascular health, we’re mainly referring to your blood pressure and cholesterol. Regular screenings and checks can clue you into an issue, such as hypertension (high blood pressure) quickly, so that you make changes to manage concerns.

Move to minimize risk
Your goal should be at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity each week. This doesn’t have to be complicated. Find the movement that makes you happy and incorporate it into your routine. Give resistance exercise a try! Think of it as a reward for your body.

Scale things back
Maintain a healthy weight by keeping your Body Mass Index (BMI) less than 25. Losing unwanted pounds is tough but focus on the facts rather than the gimmicks. Develop a plan that feels realistic for you and your lifestyle and start taking steps in the right direction.

Get in the kitchen
Eat a nutritious diet that follows the American Heart Association recommendations. Our resident dietitians have amazing tips. Try this 10-week challenge to get to a more plant-based diet, or these pointers for saving money and cutting back on sodium. Simply search our blog or Pinterest profile for a wealth of suggestions.

Get to bed
Adequate sleep makes everything better. If you’re having trouble getting to sleep, staying asleep or resting soundly enough that your partner can sleep, it’s best to investigate and rule out a sleep disorder. If you have a sleep apnea diagnosis, be sure to manage the condition appropriately.

Stress less
The body’s stress response can be grueling for the heart. Recurring depression, anxiety and stressful situations can lead to long-term complications for your cardiovascular system. Research and try some strategies to bring calm into your life. The more you can anticipate stressors and deescalate your body’s response, the better you’ll feel, and your heart will function.

Alright ladies, I’ve given you a blueprint. It’s time to tune out the noise and focus on lowering your risk for heart disease. Be aware, be realistic and be proactive!


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