Heart Disease: A Woman’s Disease, Too

What is the leading cause of death in the United States for women? At first thought, you may believe that breast cancer is the biggest threat to mortality. While breast cancer is the cause of 1 in every 28 deaths, there is a larger threat that claims 1 out of every 2 deaths.


Nearly twice as many women die of heart disease and stroke as compared to cancer. Heart disease and other cardiovascular diseases (CVD) are commonly considered men's diseases. Contrarily, CVD is the number 1 killer of both men and women. Nearly 1 woman dies per minute due to heart disease or stroke. CVD has claimed more lives of women than men. Although the seriousness of breast cancer and other diseases should not be taken lightly, they should not overshadow the risk of heart disease and stroke. Women must act to reduce their risk of CVD.

What is CVD? Cardiovascular disease is disease to the cardiovascular system-ischemia, coronary artery disease and myocardial infarction (diseases of the heart); and stroke (a lack of blood supply to an area of the brain due to a blockage in a blood vessel). The American Heart Association (AHA) has identified several CVD risk factors, both primary and secondary.

What are the primary risk factors? They are the risks based upon your age, gender and family history. Increasing Age (the risk of heart disease increases as you grow older), gender (men tend to have a greater risk of heart attack than women, and tend to have attacks earlier in life), family history (you are more likely to develop CVD if you have a family history of heart attacks and even more likely to have a cardiac event if your mother, father or siblings have had an event) and ethnicity (black women have a higher incidence of CVD than white women due to higher levels of blood pressure).

What are the secondary risk factors? Secondary risk factors can be changed. They are lifestyle oriented and are preventable measures you can change to decrease your risk. By controlling and modifying lifestyle or habits or treating with medication, secondary risk factors can be dramatically decreased.

Why are women especially at risk? As women age, they are especially at risk due to menopause. Menopause increases the risk of heart disease due to a variety of factors such as weight gain, aging and primarily the deficiency of estrogen.

Research shows that estrogen may protect a woman from developing CVD. During menopause, the body decreases its release of estrogen, thereby increasing the risk. The good news is that there are hormone replacement therapies that can protect a woman's cardiovascular system. Birth control pills carry a small risk of CVD. However, women who take an oral contraceptive and smoke tobacco increase their risk.

What can you do to lower your risk factors? Aside from changing your gender, preventing yourself from aging and modifying your genetics, there are preventable measures you can take.

The seriousness of CVD in women needs to be recognized by women. Women must take responsibility for taking preventable steps to reduce their risk of heart disease and stroke.

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