Picture a person who’s having a heart attack. Is the person in your mental picture a man or a woman? Heart disease is the leading killer of women—as it is of men. However, TV and movies depict men, mostly, suffering chest-clutching heart attack symptoms that send them straight to the hospital—or the morgue.
That’s why the American Heart Association created this video starring Elizabeth Banks. As is often the case, it’s impossible to tell the moment when her character’s heart attack actually begins. She powers through the earliest warning signs, which is also common. It’s a good reminder that women may experience heart attack warning signs differently.
Some people, especially women, experience widespread narrowing of the arteries without any actual blockages. And so-called silent heart attacks—where symptoms go completely ignored—still indicate significant heart disease in those who suffer them. By the time these invisible symptoms are discovered, it could be too late for noninvasive treatments.
That’s why men and women alike should consider the benefits of a cardiac CT, or heart scan, which detects the calcified plaque that can build up in coronary arteries. And women need to understand their heart disease risk factors.
Universal Heart Disease Risks
Both women and men should know the universal factors that put them at greater risk for heart disease:
- Being Overweight. If your body mass index (BMI) is outside the healthy range, it increases your risk of heart disease, as well as diabetes and high blood pressure.
- High Blood Pressure. Also known as hypertension, high blood pressure is the measure of the pressure in your arteries. If it’s higher than 130/80, you have hypertension. If it’s higher than 120/80, it’s elevated. Elevated blood pressure tends to get higher unless you make lifestyle changes.
- High Cholesterol. Factors like smoking, lack of physical activity, and a poor diet may contribute to high cholesterol. To tell if you have high cholesterol, you need a blood test: a lipid panel.
Heart Disease Risks Specific to Women
A number of other risk factors are especially concerning for women:
- Diabetes. It not only puts women at greater risk of heart disease, it also puts them at greater risk of complications.
- Stress and Depression. A number of studies show a connection between depression in women and increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
- Smoking. It’s not good for any of us, but women who smoke are at even greater risk of heart disease than men.
- Inactivity. An inactive lifestyle increases heart disease risk for women, with those inactive for more than 11 hours a day at the most risk. But every little bit of activity helps.
- Low Estrogen. Low levels of estrogen increase the risk of small blood vessel disease in women.
- Broken Heart Syndrome. Often brought on by stressful situations like the death of a loved one, broken heart syndrome is a temporary disruption of normal pumping in one area of the heart. Most people recover quickly, but it may be an indication of further heart disease.
- Chemotherapy or Radiation Therapy. Some chemotherapy drugs and radiation therapies may increase your risk of heart disease.
- Pregnancy Complications. Research has shown a link between gestational hypertension and preeclampsia and high blood pressure later in life.
What to Do if You’re at Risk
If you check the box for one or more of these risk factors, especially if you’re forty or over, you should consider lifestyle changes to reduce your risk. Exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet, and take steps to reduce your stress. If you smoke, Commit to Quit.
You should also consider the benefits of a $49 heart scan. It can show how much heart disease may have developed already, and help you understand your risk of developing further problems. Don’t wait until it’s too late.