When most people think of heart disease, they think of symptoms like chest pain or pressure, especially during exercise. These symptoms are typical for men. But, for many women, the symptoms are very different. More than half of women with documented heart disease have never had any chest pain.
One in two women will have heart disease at some point in their lives. So it’s important for every woman to know the symptoms. In women, the first clue to coronary artery disease may be shortness of breath, back pain, arm pain, or jaw pain. Unusual weakness or fatigue can also be a sign.
Although the symptoms may be different for men and women, the causes of heart disease are the same for everyone. The biggest risk factor is aging. We can’t make people younger. I tell people all the time: you’re going to be older tomorrow and I can’t stop that. Family history is another risk factor we can’t change.
Everybody, men and women alike, needs to be vigilant about their risk factors and make sure they control them. Know what your blood pressure and cholesterol numbers are. Maintaining a healthy weight is very helpful for preventing diabetes, which is a big risk for heart disease. If you have diabetes, make sure you’re working with your doctor to keep it under control.
I recommend diet and exercise to almost everyone. Most people have some room for improvement in their lifestyle. The diet advice I give to most people is this: If it comes off of a tree or out of the ground, it’s good for you. If it comes out of a box or a can, it’s not good for you. I try to get patients to choose foods that are overall better nutritional value. Those are primarily fruits, vegetables and lean sources of protein.
Exercise is also important for heart health. I recommend some form of aerobic exercise, like walking or biking, for a minimum of 30 minutes per day, most days of the week.
In general, if you compare men and women with the same risk factors, heart disease will usually show up ten years later in women, on average. But, since the symptoms in women can be hard to recognize, don’t wait — start taking care of yourself today.