While fewer Americans overall are dying from heart disease, the death rate from heart disease for women younger than 55 is increasing. One in every two U.S. women will die from heart disease or stroke.
As National Heart Month gets under way this month, here are some of the top unanswered questions about how heart disease affects women – and some steps women can take right now to improve their heart health.
A recent report from the Society for Women’s Health Research and WomenHeart: The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease outlined some of the key questions researchers are working to answer.
These questions include:
» Why does heart disease affects men and women differently, and why do women have worse outcomes from heart disease?
» What are the best ways to assess a woman’s risk for heart disease?
» What are the best ways to deal with those risk factors to reduce a woman’s risk for heart disease?
Researchers here at the University of Virginia Health System are seeking answers to many of these questions. For instance, I am involved in a study that uses a small ultrasound device to examine the arteries of 100 women and 100 men who had heart attacks to learn if the arteries of men and women are different. This could lead to different and better treatments for women.
UVa researchers, including Dr. Christopher Kramer, are examining whether MRI is a better tool to diagnose heart disease in women. Women are more likely than men to have abnormalities in the small vessels of their heart, which can be diagnosed more easily using MRI.
Taking charge of heart health
As researchers look for better ways to detect, treat and prevent heart disease in women, there are several proactive steps you can take now to protect your heart health.
The first step is knowing your risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes and smoking. Discuss your risk factors and family history with your doctor.
Good health begins with lifelong, maintainable changes to your lifestyle. Some of the most important changes you can make include:
» Get regular exercise. You should get at least 30 minutes of exercise on most days, if not every day.
» Maintain a healthy weight. Aim to keep your body mass index (BMI) below 25.
» Eat fresh foods, and avoid processed foods whenever possible.
» Find time to take care of yourself and reduce your stress level. Helping other people begins with helping yourself.