You may be surprised to hear it, but heart disease is one of the most prevalent killers of women in North America. Typically thought of as a man's disease, only recently have the effects of heart disease in women begun to be understood. It is responsible for half of the deaths of American women over the age of 50. Heart disease kills 12 times more women than breast cancer. As a woman, it is important to be aware of the risks that heart disease can pose. If caught early, a variety of treatments can help to stop the progression of the disease.
What is Heart Disease?
Heart disease, or cardiovascular disease, affects the muscles and blood vessels inside your heart. Symptoms of heart disease include: heart attack, stroke, arrhythmia, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. The causes of heart disease are often unknown, though there are a variety of predisposing factors that may contribute to you developing the illness.
If your family has a history of heart disease, there is a high risk that you too may develop the disease. This is known as acquired heart disease. Your risk can also increase if you are more than 20% overweight, inactive, or have high blood pressure or cholesterol. Additionally, diabetes, smoking, excessive alcohol intake, or taking oral contraceptives have all been linked to heart disease and stroke.
Types of Heart Diseases Heart disease is actually an umbrella term for a variety of ailments. In fact, there are many different types of heart disease that you need to be aware of. Some are more dangerous than others, but many can be precursors to serious heart attacks and strokes. These are the most common diseases of the heart:
High Blood Pressure: High blood pressure is often one of the first indicators of heart disease. Blood pressure is a measure of the force at which your blood flows through your veins. A normal blood pressure reading is usually around 120/80. A reading that is consistently greater than 140/90 should be treated by a doctor.
Angina: Angina is a type of heart disease that is characterized by intermittent chest pains. With angina, your heart isn't getting enough blood, resulting in a squeezing pain. This pain can also occur in your arms, back, neck, or jaw. Angina attacks are usually triggered by physical exertion. However, alcohol, smoking, and extreme hot or cold can also cause attacks.
Coronary Heart Disease: Coronary heart disease is the most common form of heart disease in both men and women. Coronary heart disease affects blood vessels in the heart, causing angina and heart attacks.
Arthosclerosis: Arthosclerosis involves the thickening of the arteries in your heart. Your heart is made up of a number of different passageways that carry blood. Your arteries are one of these passageways. With this type of heart disease, the inner walls of your arteries narrow due to a buildup of fat and cholesterol. As your arteries narrow, blood cannot flow through them, leading to possible heart attacks or stroke.
Stroke: Strokes are caused by broken blood vessels, blood clots, or a lack of blood flow to the brain. They can cause paralysis, loss of motion, and even death.
Heart Failure: When the heart fails, it is unable to pump blood efficiently to all parts of the body. A weakened heart has to pump too hard to circulate your blood, causing it severe strain. Heart failure generally manifests as a heart attack.
Menopause and Heart Disease
More than half of all women over 50 will die from heart disease. In the past decade, more research has been done in order to find out why so many women in this age group are suffering from the disease. It appears that menopause is one of the foremost indicators in causing heart disease.
Estrogen, the female sex hormone, governs your cycle of ovulation and menstruation. However, it also seems to fulfill other purposes in your body. Estrogen works to protect your heart during your childbearing years by controlling the amount of fat, called lipids, in your body. Lipids make up the cholesterol in your bloodstream and estrogen helps to combat the buildup of unhealthy cholesterol.
Cholesterol consists of two ingredients: HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol) and LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol). It appears that estrogen helps to increase the amount of HDL in your bloodstream and reduce the amount of LDL in your body. This prevents the arteries from building up fatty deposits and allows your blood to flow more easily through your heart.
During and after menopause, your body stops producing estrogen. As a result, the amount of LDL in your bloodstream increases, preventing the good cholesterol from doing its job. Unfortunately, cholesterol and heart disease are intricately linked. High LDL can result in the thickening of the arteries and an increase in blood pressure. Reduced amounts of estrogen can also increase the number of blood clotters, called fibrogens, in your body. This too can clog your arteries, impairing your heart's ability to pump.
Natural menopause appears to have less of an impact on your heart; as your estrogen levels decrease slowly. Therefore, your risk for heart disease and stroke increase slowly. However, women who go through menopause due to surgery tend to increase their risk of heart disease much more quickly. This is mainly due to the fact that your estrogen levels drop suddenly.
Heart Disease Treatment If caught early, there are many effective treatments for the different types of heart disease. Although there is no cure for heart disease, many women can reduce their risks significantly through appropriate treatment.
Depending upon your symptoms, different heart disease treatments are available. High cholesterol can be safely lowered with cholesterol-lowering medications. Similarly, high blood pressure can also be lowered with medication. For more advanced heart disease, nitrates can be prescribed. Nitrates work to reduce your heart's workload by increasing the amount of oxygen and blood that flows to your heart.
Beta blockers also ease the stress on your heart. They slow your heart rate down, decreasing the amount of energy needed to pump your blood. For arthosclerosis, calcium channel blockers may be an effective medication. These blockers help to open up your coronary arteries, which allows your heart to work with less blood and oxygen.
Preventing Heart Disease
The best treatment for heart disease is prevention. Early and continued prevention can help all women avoid heart disease and its consequences. Maintaining a healthy diet that is low in fat can help prevent your arteries from clogging, especially after menopause. Reducing the amount of alcohol you drink and avoiding cigarettes can also reduce your risks of high blood pressure and help in your heart disease prevention efforts.
Moderate exercise for just 30 minutes, three times a week, can also greatly reduce your risk of heart disease. Exercise helps to strengthen your heart and purify your bloodstream, preventing heart attacks and stroke.