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Preventing heart disease in women

Heart disease causes some 400,000 women to die each year and the numbers are increasing. Heart disease is sadly one of those areas women are achieving a very unwelcome equality. Yet cardiovascular disease remains very much a male health issue in the minds of both patients and healthcare professionals. With so many women’s lives at stake, what measures will help raise awareness and improve survival rates? An ounce of prevention truly is worth a pound of cure.

Women and heart disease
Women have not only caught up with men in terms of numbers, but continue to outpace men in both diagnoses and mortality rates. The reasons for increased cardiovascular disease rates reflect the shocking growth in women carrying one or more risk factors.

*Women are 10 times more likely to die from cardiovascular disease than from breast cancer
*One in every three females is unaware that she has heart disease
*Many of the women who died had no previously reported symptoms
*Generally, only about half of American women are aware of heart disease as a pressing health issue; this is less so for females who are visible minorities

Midlife weight gain, often blamed solely on menopause, is a by-product of a slowing metabolism and decreased muscle mass. But the reality is that inactive lifestyles contribute to ever expanding waistlines. Two thirds of American women aged 45-54 are overweight and 40% are classified as obese or being 30 pounds overweight.

Waist measurements are on the rise. For women, any measurement of 35 inches or greater indicates increased risk for heart attack and stroke. Menopause is the perfect time to examine current lifestyle habits and implement changes, even minor ones, to help offset and mitigate heart disease risks.

Preventing heart disease in women
Dr. Cynthia Stuenkel of the University of California San Diego, urges her colleagues to help patients understand the ways to prevent heart disease. In her presentation at the 21st Annual Meeting of the North American Menopause Society, Stuenkel acknowledged progress in raising awareness but cautioned that much work remains to be done. Women need to learn ways to manage their risk factors and make the necessary lifestyle changes.

Life’s Simple 7
Stuenkel points to the American Heart Association’s recommendations Life’s Simple 7; a list of steps to help improve overall health. This list includes what Stuenkel refers to as the “four familiar fundamentals of lifestyle modification along with the top three risks amendable to medical management.”

1. Get active – preferably 30 minutes of exercise a day but even just three times a week works
2. Control cholesterol – know your cholesterol levels and follow up with dietary changes and if need be, prescription medications
3. Eat better – to combat cholesterol and weight levels, eat a healthy diet low in fat, sugar, and sodium and stick to fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
4. Manage blood pressure – high blood pressure gives no warning signs, regular readings are important
5. Lose weight - obesity is now a major health crisis for many Americans
6. Reduce blood sugar – increased blood sugar levels may lead to prediabetes or full onset type 2 diabetes, both are risk factors for heart disease
7. Stop smoking – even long time smokers will benefit from quitting and decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease as well as other health issues including cancer

The good news is that even small changes can pay off in big dividends. Stuenkel reminds her colleagues that with a manageable and realistic plan, patients will be able to make changes to help improve their health both during and beyond menopause.

As the population ages, the need for awareness is greater than ever. Women must start associating heart disease as an indiscriminate killer that does not care about race or gender. The sooner heart disease becomes a more recognized health matter, the better the chance of decreasing the number of deaths from this preventable disease for both men and women.

Preventing Heart Disease in Women: Where Do We Go From Here? Cynthia A. Stuenkel, MD, NCMP. University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA. Presentation delivered 21st Annual NAMS Meeting Chicago, IL, 2010.

Menopause, Your Doctor, and You

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