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Women's Heart Disease: February is National Heart Month

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Margo Kerrigan, M.P.H., Area Director
Indian Health Service California Area Office

February 2006 - Heart disease is the number one killer of women in the United States, claiming the lives of one out of every three women. In the United States, twice as many women die from heart disease than from all forms of cancer combined. It is also the leading cause of death among American Indian women. The American Heart Association has designated February as National Heart Month. One day has been specially set aside to raise awareness of the problem of heart disease among women, this is National Women's Heart Day on February 17.

There are different kinds of heart disease, but the most common is coronary artery disease (CAD). CAD occurs when the heart does not get enough blood, which can lead to a heart attack. Women tend to develop heart disease at a later age than men, due to the protective effects of hormones prior to menopause. The most common symptom of a heart attack in both men and women is some type of pain, pressure or discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts longer than a few minutes, or comes and goes. This pain may spread to one or both arms, back, jaw, or stomach.

However, many women do not experience chest pain during a heart attack, but do experience a range of different symptoms. This is especially true if someone is diabetic as well. Some common signs of a heart attack in women include:

  • Pain or discomfort in other areas of the upper body, including the arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Unusual fatigue

Not every woman gets all of these symptoms. And, sometimes these symptoms come and go. Heart attacks are generally more severe in women than in men and they have higher rates of death and recurrence. Women are also less likely than men to believe they're having a heart attack and more likely to delay seeking treatment. This can prevent doctors from using medication that can save lives and limit the damage from the heart attack since the medication is only effective in the first few hours.

If you, or someone you love, thinks they may be having a heart attack, call for emergency medical help immediately. Don't drive to the emergency room as emergency treatment can even begin before getting to the hospital. Even if your symptoms are getting better, you need to be checked as they may come back worse than before resulting in permanent, severe damage or death.

The best way to avoid a heart attack is prevention. Many of the major risk factors for heart disease can be controlled, including high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, obesity and overweight, physical inactivity, and smoking. Other risk factors include diabetes, family history of heart disease, and age. By getting regular checkups; increasing activity to 30 minutes several times per week; losing weight; quitting smoking; eating a heart-healthy diet; managing stress and controlling disease such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes women can reduce, if not eliminate, their risks for heart attacks. It is also important to speak with your doctor about medications, such as oral contraceptives, since these may increase your cardiovascular risks, especially as women get older.

February is a great month to get started on a healthier heart-friendly lifestyle. A good first step is to find out your risk for heart disease. During National Women's Heart Day on February 17, 2006, the non-profit organization "Sister to Sister: Everyone Has A Heart" will provide free heart disease screenings and "heart-healthy" prevention information and support to women in order to prevent heart disease. The National Woman's Heart Day screening includes:

  • Risk assessment questionnaire
  • Blood pressure check
  • Finger prick, non-fasting blood test to determine cholesterol and glucose
  • On-the-spot screening results

Check the Sister to Sister website to see if you live near a city holding one of these events on February 17, 2006. www.sistertosister.org/keephealthy.shtml Exit Disclaimer – You Are Leaving www.ihs.gov

If you are unable to attend one of the events, ask your doctor for an assessment of your risk for heart disease.

For more information about women's heart health:

National Women's Health Information Center (NWHIC): (800) 994-9662
www.4woman.gov Exit Disclaimer – You Are Leaving www.ihs.gov

National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: (800) 793-2665
www.nhlbi.nih.gov/actintime Exit Disclaimer – You Are Leaving www.ihs.gov

The Heart Truth National Awareness Campaign for Women about Heart Disease
www.hearttruth.gov Exit Disclaimer – You Are Leaving www.ihs.gov

American Heart Association: (800) 793-2665
www.americanheart.org Exit Disclaimer – You Are Leaving www.ihs.gov

National Institutes of Health Women's Heart Disease information (includes many links)
www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/heartdiseasesgeneral.html#women Exit Disclaimer – You Are Leaving www.ihs.gov
www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/heartdiseaseinwomen.html Exit Disclaimer – You Are Leaving www.ihs.gov

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