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Menopause and heart disease awareness

Someone you love is showing signs of having a heart attack. Would you call 911? Of course, you would. But would you call for help if you thought you were in distress? An alarming number of women either choose to ignore or simply do not know the risks for heart disease and those numbers will only increase with more menopausal and postmenopausal women.

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death among women, even more than combined cancers including breast cancer. Women with various forms of heart disease face reduced life expectancy and lower quality of live. But despite the recent ramped up campaigns to raise awareness heart disease survival rates continue to increase. Why are women not getting the message?

The statistics are grim:
*One out of every three women will likely develop heart disease. Rising obesity rates and expanding waistlines are putting greater numbers of women at risk for having a heart attack.

*Since 1984, more women than men have died each year due to cardiovascular disease and those rates show no signs of reversing.

*About 500,000 women die each year, a higher rate than breast cancer.

*Heart disease risks and awareness have increased among women. In 1997 only 30% of women surveyed stated heart disease as a leading cause of death compared to 54% in 2009. Yet cardiovascular disease rates and deaths keep rising.

Women are more likely to develop heart disease due to factors such as overweight, high body mass index, high blood pressure, inactivity, and poor diet. For years, the image of the hard-working, hard-living male painted the ultimate heart attack victim portrait. Today the picture is quite different.

Why the lack of awareness? One of the more shocking revelations from a recent national survey shows that more African-American and Hispanic women are at risk of having a heart attack. At the same time, these are the very women who need information but are least likely to get it as most campaigns target Caucasian women. Heart disease does not discriminate; neither should educational opportunities.

The push is on to get the message out to all women, stressing a healthy lifestyle and taking preventative measures. Women need to recognize the risks, but few can. Only about half of women surveyed could identify cardiovascular symptoms especially those that are different from those found in men. Women are better at recognizing the onset of a heart attack in a male spouse or family member, but are unable to understand heart attack signs in themselves.

This brings us back to those 911 calls. Fortunately, for spouses and others, 79% of women would know to call for help based on the signs of a heart attack. Only 53% would do the same for themselves. Women either do not know enough to call for help or even feel that they must be having some other health problem such as indigestion or fatigue but not a heart attack.

Cancer prevention and fundraising movements have helped improve healthcare options and have saved many lives. It is time to take cardiovascular disease in women to heart.

Mosca, Lori J. MD, MPH, PhD. Department of Medicine, Columbia University, New York, NY as presented at NAMS 22nd Annual Meeting, Washington, D.C. 2011.

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