There is a killer out there – a killer that is taking the lives of women in their prime. It is robbing their families and friends of their love and attention and their communities of the positive contributions they could have made. This killer is heart disease and the best weapon we have in the fight against it is awareness, beginning with knowing some startling facts.
• Heart disease kills more women than all cancers combined.
• It kills one woman every minute, more than 400,000 each year.
• Since 1984, more women in the U.S. have died of heart disease than men.
• The number of young women between the ages of 29 and 45 dying of heart disease is actually increasing and has been doing so since the year 2000.
• Women make up 51% of the U.S. population but only 24% of participants in heart related studies.
• Only 1 in 5 American women believe that heart disease is her greatest health threat.
Fight the Ladykiller is a campaign developed by the Women’s Heart Alliance, an organization formed to raise awareness, encourage action and drive new research to fight women’s heart disease. It encourages women to know their risks, take the threat seriously, talk to their healthcare providers, and make positive health and lifestyle changes to keep from falling victim to this indiscriminate killer. To learn more visit www.fighttheladykiller.org.
Well-Being spoke to Dr. Douglas D. Harkins, Cardiologist with Jackson Heart Clinic about the epidemic of coronary artery disease among women. According to Dr. Harkins, his practice is fairly evenly split between men and women, with possibly a slight majority of women.
“I believe more women are starting to become aware of their risk factors for coronary artery disease,” Dr. Harkins explains. “The attention it has gotten over the past few years is helping, but there are still too many women who fail to recognize the symptoms of a heart attack or who ignore them. Sometimes I think it is denial, but too often, it is because they have so much going on – so many people counting on them – that they put off going to a doctor or to the ER until it is too late.”
Some of the atypical symptoms of a heart attack that a woman may experience are: pain in the back, arm or jaw; overwhelming fatigue; lightheadedness; fluttering in the chest; or even no symptoms. However, many women may have the “typical” symptoms such as shortness of breath, nausea and pain and pressure in the chest.
“To make matters more confusing, both men and women with diabetes may not recognize heart attack symptoms because they have an abnormal perception of pain due to the effects of diabetes,” notes Dr. Harkins. “And having diabetes automatically puts a person at higher risk of having a heart attack.”
Knowing the symptoms to look for and heeding the warning signs are crucial to getting proper treatment quickly so damage to the heart can be minimized.
“If your pain is exertional in nature, in other words if it is more severe when you are involved in a strenuous activity such as climbing stairs or running, and then stops when you are still, that could be an indication that it is related to blockage in the coronary arteries,” Harkins adds. “Even if you just think you might be having heart attack symptoms, go to the ER. If you find out it was just indigestion, that’s much better than ignoring your symptoms and jeopardizing your life.”
Harkins encourages women to know their risk factors for coronary artery disease. Some risk factors are non-modifiable, such as age (women are at greater risk after menopause), family history of heart disease, or race (African American and Hispanic women are at higher risk than Caucasian women). But, there are other risk factors such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity that can be treated and managed with the help of medications and lifestyle changes, including stopping smoking, getting regular exercise, and eating a diet low in saturated fat, with more fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, fish and poultry and low-fat dairy.
“If a person, man or woman, has several risk factors for heart disease, I would encourage them to have a coronary artery calcium score,” Harkins continues. “It is a non-invasive way to identify problems early and begin interventional measures before the risks become greater. Most insurance companies and Medicare still don’t cover it, but for around $100, it is probably the best healthcare buy you can find for the money.”
According to Harkins, coronary artery disease doesn’t have to be the killer of women that it is today. First, women have to recognize the risks and realize that it can happen to them.
“There is a lot you can do to reduce your risk factors and lessen the threat of coronary artery disease,” he adds. “Know your numbers – blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar; take your medications when they are prescribed; and make lifestyle changes, that can lead to a healthier heart. As a physician I would much rather treat you for your risk factors and work with you to improve your odds, than ever have to see you in the ER with a heart attack.”
Douglas D. Harkins, M.D., Cardiologist, is a graduate of Ole Miss. His medical degree is from the University of Mississippi Medical Center where he also completed his residency and served as Chief Resident in Internal Medicine. Dr. Harkins completed a cardiology fellowship at UMC and is board certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine in Cardiology.