One of the most common conditions facing women today is heart disease, yet many women do not know they are at risk. In fact, the numbers are staggering. Each year, cardiovascular disease claims the lives of more than half a million women. Knowing the magnitude of women who are affected and being aware that women are at risk for heart disease is the first step to lower your risk.
Generally, heart disease was thought to be more common in males. Yet nearly 65,000 more women than men die of the disease annually. So why do we hear more about heart disease among men? In the past, many of the major cardiovascular research studies were conducted on men, so doctors became familiar with the warnings signs for male patients, including chest pain that spreads to the upper arms and shoulders.
However, women more often experience less obvious symptoms such as abdominal pain, shortness of breath, nausea and unexplained fatigue. All too often women may avoid or delay seeking medical care as a result of these seemingly harmless symptoms.
Locally, there is a lower number of women enrolled in cardiac rehab, with only one quarter of cardiac rehab patients at Hendricks Regional Health being women. Is this because women in the Indianapolis area are less affected by heart disease? I think it is because women traditionally take a caregiver role. They don’t have time to make their own health a priority because they are so focused on caring for others.
Even if a woman consults a physician, non-specific symptoms have many other possible causes and may not immediately point to heart problems. Even when doctors suspect that a woman’s symptoms may be due to heart disease, making a definitive diagnosis can be more challenging because traditional tests appear to be more accurate for males. When conducted on a woman, the standard exercise stress test (walking on a treadmill with electrocardiogram monitoring) does not have the same predictive value, further complicating an official diagnosis of heart disease. In fact, 63 percent of women who died suddenly of heart disease had no previous symptoms, which implies that many women do not know just how at risk they are.
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Jo Ann Morton, MSN, RN, is the Director of ICU and Cardiac/Pulmonary Rehabilitation at Hendricks Regional Health. She has a passion for educating our community about heart disease. Learn more about heart care services at Hendricks Regional Health, including resources available to improve your health.