February is National Heart Disease Awareness month and February 4th is National Wear Red Day. On this day most nurses will be wearing red in some form to acknowledge the difference in heart disease for women. This is also an opportunity for nurses to educate women about the risk factors, prevention, and symptoms of heart disease.
As we all know, heart disease was once only thought of as a “man’s disease.” Heart disease is now the number one leading cause of death in women over the age of 65. Heart disease will kill more women than all cancers combined together.
There are several reasons for this. Women tend to develop heart disease later on in life. As a woman’s estrogen starts to decrease they lose their natural protection from heart disease because estrogen decreases. Also, most women are less likely to survive a heart attack than men. The primary reason for this is because most women do not receive or access medical care as quickly as men do. Women do not always recognize, or are aware of the symptoms of heart disease. Their symptoms can be very different than the symptoms of heart disease in men.
Another factor is that women very rarely discuss heart disease and risk factors with their physicians. Unfortunately, some physicians still do not consider heart disease to be a major risk for women. These two issues together continue to decrease awareness about heart disease in women.
So, what do nurses need to know to help teach women about heart disease? We need to know what women can and cannot do to prevent heart disease. First, the risk factors women cannot change are increasing age, family history, gender, and race. African American women are at a higher risk for heart disease.
However there are several risk factors that women can change. Encourage women to quit smoking, especially if they are using birth control pills. Remind women that second hand smoke can also increase the risk of heart disease. Teach about proper diet and exercise habits since high cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. Screening should start early with a family history. Make sure women know what their blood pressure is and to be aware of a family history of hypertension.
Also obesity and being slightly overweight can contribute to heart disease. Both can increase blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose. If a person has diabetes death from heart disease increases by 2-4 times. Metabolic syndrome is now a risk factor for heart disease. Women also need to be aware of the physical symptoms of a heart attack. Women also have chest pain or chest discomfort. However women may not always have the “elephant sitting on the chest” type pain. Pain in the neck, upper back, arm and or shoulder pain, and jaw pain. Sometimes a toothache is actually not a toothache at all, but a symptom of a heart attack. Other symptoms are shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, indigestion, sweating, and dizziness. Another common symptom in women is sudden or overwhelming fatigue.
Hopefully women will seek out information during the month of February, and nurses will be able to encourage women to be advocates for themselves, in the treatment and prevention of heart disease.