Myths about heart disease abound, especially those related to women. But such misconceptions only increase the risk of what is already the number one killer for both men and women.
Here’s a scary stat: According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, 80 percent of women between ages 40 to 60 have at least one risk factor for heart disease.
The more facts women know about heart disease symptoms and prevention, the better, says Donna P. Denier, MD, FACC, a clinical cardiologist at South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside, New York: Even in their 30s, women need to ask their doctor to check them for heart disease risk. Early recognition and prevention are key.
Below are common heart disease myths, particularly related to women, followed by the facts that dispel them.
Myth: If a woman doesn’t have chest pain, she’s not having a heart attack.
Fact: If you’ve been exerting yourself, chest pain is typical, says Denier. “But both women and men can also have atypical heart attack symptoms.” These include overwhelming fatigue; jaw, arm, back, or stomach pain; waves of nausea and faintness; and shortness of breath. If you notice these changes, contact your primary physician.
Myth: Only older women have heart attacks.
Fact: Although risk increases with age, even women in their 20s have heart attacks. According to the National Center for Health Statistics and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, 0.6 percent of women have coronary heart disease between ages 20-39, 5.5 percent between 40-59; 10.6 between 60-79, and 18.6 at age 80 or after.
Myth: Women are at less risk for heart disease than men are.
Fact: Since 1984, more women—one in three—than men have died each year from heart disease.
Myth: Breast cancer kills more women than heart disease.
Fact: “More women die of cardiovascular disease, including stroke, than all forms of cancer put together,” says Denier.
Myth: Estrogen protects women from heart disease.
Fact: Women’s heart disease risk elevates dramatically once a woman reaches menopause, leading to the theory that natural estrogen is protective, says Denier. But The Women’s Health Initiative Study, begun in 1991 and halted in 2002, found that women taking a combination of estrogen and progesterone had increased risk for heart attacks, strokes, and blood clots. Women taking estrogen alone had increased risk of stroke and blood clots in their legs. “Estrogen is never recommended for cardiac disease prevention,” says Denier.
Myth: Heart disease detection and treatment is the same for men and women.
Fact: Initially, most heart disease studies were done on men, leaving it unclear how to treat women. And some doctors overlooked women’s often atypical symptoms, believing they weren’t at risk.
Also, the disease can look different in women. Rather than plaque blockage in a large artery, women may have more blockage in smaller branches of the coronary arteries that would not show up on ordinary screening tests such as an electrocardiogram (EKG), which measures electrical changes in heart rhythms.
“But as women and doctors are becoming more aware of the risks, treatment and detection for women has gotten better,” says Denier.
Myth: Heredity determines whether a woman will have heart disease.
Fact: Heredity is a risk factor for heart disease, but it’s not the only one. Others include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and smoking. Metabolic syndrome also raises risk. This ubiquitous syndrome is made of a number of factors: A waist measurement greater than 35 inches; a fasting glucose, or blood sugar, greater than 100, triglycerides, or blood fats higher than 150; a blood pressure higher than 130/85, and a HDL cholesterol reading lower than 50.
Myth: Women can’t do anything to prevent heart disease.
Fact: Prevention is the key to heart disease treatment, says Denier: “Women who are overweight need to lose weight and exercise most days 30 minutes a day. And they need to change their diet, eating more low-fat protein, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, and getting rid of processed foods.” It’s key too to ask your doctor to assess your risks, following your weight, cholesterol, and blood pressure. And don’t wait until menopause to do that: Start monitoring risks in your 30s, or even your 20s. It’s never too early to start developing good habits, after all.