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Healthy hearts, healthy lives: recognizing heart disease in women

Heart disease accounts for about one in every four deaths in women each year, making it the leading cause of death for females in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But there’s good news: women can take steps to reduce the risk.

The Military Health System works to lower the odds by educating women – and those who love them –to recognize the range of symptoms of heart disease, know when to take action when symptoms arise, and know what to do to take responsibility for their own health.

“While heart disease is a common problem for all Americans, it’s more of a problem for women because the typical symptoms associated with heart ailments are not always easy to recognize for women,” said Dr. Manju Goyal, a cardiologist at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital. Some symptoms of heart disease, such as chest pain, pressure or discomfort, may not be as severe in women; therefore they may not recognize they are having a heart attack and don’t seek proper care, said Goyal.

Women might experience symptoms that seem unrelated to heart disease, such as sweating, unusual fatigue, nausea or vomiting, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, or pain in one or both arms. Women can also experience discomfort in the neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back, or abdomen. Because these symptoms can be mistaken for other medical conditions, women may wait to seek help or misunderstand what’s really going on.

The term “heart disease” covers a range of conditions, including coronary artery disease, heart failure and heart rhythm problems. According to the National Institutes of Health, the most common cause for heart disease for both men and women is the loss of blood supply to the heart when arteries and blood vessels get blocked, or become narrow. This occurrence can lead to a heart attack or stroke.

“The risk for women over the age of 55 for heart disease becomes equivalent to that of men,” said Goyal. “It’s not a cause-and-effect relationship, but something we’ve observed through studies.”

Smoking, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol are key risk factors for heart disease. Other possible influences include family history, diabetes, excessive alcohol consumption, obesity, and physical inactivity. Women face additional risk with pregnancy complications and menopause.

Women can take major steps to reduce their risk for heart disease by making lifestyle changes, such as limiting alcohol consumption, not smoking, eating healthy, reducing stress, and exercising.

Any type of physical activity can improve health, according to Army Col. Robert Oh, chief medical officer at Martin Army Community Hospital, Fort Benning, Georgia. Even so, exercise is about more than weight and fitness, he added.

“It’s really about health for life,” said Oh, adding that about 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise a week, is recommended. “A new study suggests that even if you did less than 150 minutes a week, but you did one or two sessions per week, [you] could have some significant health benefits.”

Service women get regular health check-ups, but once they leave the military, they need to keep track of their health, just as dependents of service members do, said Goyal.

“Women need to ask their doctor, ‘Hey, do I need to worry about this?’ and, ‘Do I need to take an aspirin a day to reduce the risk of heart disease?’” said Goyal. “Knowing that heart disease is so prevalent, it’s really more of a public health issue for everyone.”

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