Heart disease is the leading cause of death for American women, killing almost half of those affected by the disease, according to the American Heart Association. Heart disease is a term used to group the multitude of conditions caused by an unhealthy heart, including conditions that impact the heart’s rhythm, the strength of its muscles or the hardening of its arteries.Heart disease is confusing and deadly. There’s good cholesterol, bad cholesterol, hypertension and something called triglycerides. For women, knowing the basic facts about heart disease can be lifesaving.
For both women and men, two types of heart disease are most prominent and can be most life-threatening if left untreated: coronary heart disease and coronary microvascular disease.
Coronary Heart Disease
Coronary heart disease, or CHD, is a disease in which plaque — a substance made up of fat, cholesterol and other harmful substances — builds up in the inner walls of the heart’s large, coronary arteries, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A heart plumbing problem manifests itself in symptoms that may not seem to be related to the heart, particularly for women.
“I think it’s important to realize that oftentimes, women have different heart disease symptoms than men do,” Sullivan says. “A woman may feel more fatigue or may feel more shortness of breath or have nausea, vomiting or even abdominal pain and not chest pain. Women may have these symptoms, and they don’t necessarily recognize that they’re coming from the heart.”
These tiny arteries are blocked and damaged in the same way as their much larger coronary neighbors, but the treatment for them can be much more difficult due to their miniscule size.
Coronary Microvascular Disease
Coronary microvascular disease, or MVD, is similar to coronary heart disease, but impacts a different, much smaller set of arteries connected to the major coronary arteries.
“It’s more difficult to treat microvascular disease because that disease affects arteries that are so small, we can’t just open those vessels with balloons or stents like we can with the major blood vessels,” Sullivan says.
More women than men are affected by microvascular disease, and researchers are conducting trials and studies to understand why. But Dr. Nakela Cook, medical officer at National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, points out that some factors are more prominent in microvascular disease cases, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high blood sugar. These risks increase most dramatically when women enter menopause, or around the age of 55.
“The thinking is that there may be a role in the drop of estrogen after menopause,” Cook says. “This contributes to increased plaque formation and redistribution of body fat that could contribute to the development of heart disease. And we also know that blood pressure tends to go up in women as they get older as well, which seems to start at that time after menopause.”
A Woman’s Disease
Regardless of the disease’s prominence in America, heart disease and heart attacks are still branded in the minds of most as a man’s disease.
“A lot of times, I feel like women don’t believe heart disease will happen to them,” Sullivan says. “There have been studies asking women what they consider to be the No. 1 disease leading to death in women; most women thought it was breast cancer.”
In reality, many more women die each year from heart attacks — more than 200,000. But there is hope with heart disease: It’s highly preventable if risks are identified and managed.
“I encourage all women to have a personal conversation with their physician about their individual risk for heart disease,” Cook says. “This conversation should include their family history, their current numbers, their blood sugar, their blood pressure, their waist circumference, their weight and height.
“But all of us,” she adds, “could benefit from intensive lifestyle modification and to make heart-healthy choices.”
Once you’re ready to hit the gym, take it easy. If you’ve been away from the gym for a while, take your time to get back in the swing of things. You’ll be surprised how quickly your health and exercise stamina can improve with five-minute increments added to your fitness routine each day. Work your way towards the American Heart Association’s suggestion of either 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity at least five days per week or at least 25 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity at least three days a week. Don’t forget to include moderate to high-intensity muscle-strengthening activity at least two days a week.
While many activities are available as heart healthy options, according to the AHA, “walking is the single most effective form of exercise to achieve heart health.” Not only is walking free to do, but it is also an enjoyable social form of exercise. Grab a friend and get out of the office for a thirty-minute walk. Or, make an effort to always take the stairs and park farther away from your shopping destinations.
Shop to walk or walk to shop? Doesn’t matter, because either way you’ll set yourself up to succeed. Looking great while working out can lead to better workouts and a more positive outlook on fitness and health. Grab flat, comfortable sneakers with laces and properly fitting clothing that wicks sweat from your skin.
The benefits of walking, or other cardiac exercises like running, swimming or biking are invaluable, especially for your heart. But the effort will go wasted if not paired with a healthy diet. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association), omega-3 fatty acids, beans, nuts, whole grains, fresh vegetables and fruits are all wonder food for your heart — especially when approached with variety. A glass of red wine is fine, but the AHA recommends no more than one drink per day for women or two for men.
To help yourself along your journey to heart health success, keep a log of your fitness routine and find ways to reward yourself for accomplishing certain goals. The biggest reward you’ll receive? A long, healthy life and a happy heart.