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Women: Take Charge of Your Heart Health

Seminar gets to the heart of the matter on cardiovascular disease among women

By Jennifer Bulat

Busy women who don’t make time for themselves may be in danger of more than acute stress. They may be ignoring the warning signs of something that kills 8 million women around the world every year: cardiovascular disease.

The virtual program “Women’s Heart Health: Heart Disease Has No Gender Bias,” presented July 28 by NEW (Network of Executive Women) and sponsored by Impact 21, ExecuInsight LLC, UNT Health Science Center, Medical City Fort Worth and Case Western Reserve University, explored the symptoms and warning signs of cardiovascular diseases, and outlined how women can be the champions of their own health.

It was created in honor of Patti Safford, director of operations for Impact 21, who died suddenly in January while on a flight as a result of a cardiac event. Lisa Briggs, co-founder and president of Impact 21, Lexington, Kentucky, said Safford’s tragic death was “a wake-up call” and that she hoped the program could help other women recognize the signs of heart disease.

“For some of us, your first cardiovascular event could be your last,” said Dr. Michael Smith, Professor of Physiology at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth, Texas. Cardiovascular disease can start in the teen years and progress, he said. People who have it are often unaware before symptoms occur.

Cardiovascular disease kills more than 300,000 women per year, Dr. Smith said. The audience, who were all NEW leaders, are a “high-achieving, very busy group,” he said. They often don’t make time to see a doctor, he said, and COVID-19 has increased that, with many people afraid or uncertain about visiting health professionals for safety reasons.

And the statistics are disturbing: More than 8 million women in the United States are living with heart disease, according to the American Heart Association. Moreover, 38% of women are likely to die within one year of a heart attack, compared to 25% of men.

“Equalizing heart health remains a challenge,” said Dr. Meera Kondapaneni, Director for Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory and Director for Cardiology Fellowship Program at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland. “[Cardiovascular disease] is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States,” and it kills six times more women each year than breast cancer, Dr. Kondapaneni said.

Symptoms and Risks

The cardiovascular system includes the heart and all of the blood vessels running through the body. Cardiovascular disease can involve either the heart or the vascular system or both, and vascular diseases often contribute to heart disease. There are many cardiovascular diseases, but among the most common are heart failure (pump dysfunction), arrhythmias (abnormal heartbeat) and the diseases of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) that lead to coronary artery disease (heart attacks), cerebrovascular disease (strokes) and peripheral artery disease (limb loss).

Heart failure affects 6.5 million U.S. women, and more women (55.8%) than men (44.2%) die of heart failure, according to the American Heart Association. Risk factors for heart failure in women, among others, include high blood pressure and thyroid disorders; women are five to eight times more likely than men to have thyroid disorders.

Dr. Kimberly Wilson, Chief Cardiology Fellow, Cardiovascular Medicine at Medical City Fort Worth in Fort Worth, Texas, explained the symptoms of heart failure:

● Shortness of breath

● Chronic coughing or wheezing

● A buildup of fluid somewhere in the body

● Fatigue or feeling lightheaded

● Nausea or lack of appetite

● Confusion or impaired thinking

● High heart rate

It’s time to call 911 when symptoms progress, Dr. Wilson said.

The doctors agreed that medical providers are not as attentive to the risk factors or symptoms in cardiovascular disease for women as they should be. They said providers need better education on gender and racial biases and that programs need to improve to narrow such gaps in treating cardiovascular disease.

Cardiovascular diseases kill 50,000 African American women every year, and only 1 in 3 African American women know heart disease is their greatest health risk, according to the American Heart Association. Also, Hispanic women develop heart disease 10 years earlier than non-Hispanic women.

Some risk factors cannot be modified, such as age, sex and family history of premature cardiovascular disease. And other risk factors, such as pregnancy-induced hypertension and gestational diabetes, are specific to women. But controlling diet, avoiding cigarettes and getting regular exercise can help prevent the onset of hypertension, diabetes and obesity.

Arrhythmias can happen in the top or bottom chambers of the heart and include fast (tachycardia) or slow (bradycardia) rhythms. While women have faster heart rates than men as a rule, women are twice as likely as men to have certain types of tachycardias (abnormal fast rhythms).

Of the 435,000 women who have heart attacks each year, 83,000 are younger than 65, and 35,000 are younger than 55, data from the American Heart Association shows. For women under 50, heart attacks are twice as likely to be fatal compared to heart attacks in men of the same age. And women are less likely to survive or be revived after a heart attack than men.

The symptoms of a heart attack tend to come and go and then become constant and severe, which is when it’s time to call 911:

● Unusual fatigue

● Lightheadedness and fainting

● Discomfort in one or both arms, neck, shoulder, jaw or stomach

● Squeezing pain in the center of the chest

● Upper abdominal pressure or discomfort

● Feeling of fullness

● Nausea/vomiting

● Cold sweat

Women have a higher risk of stroke. One in 5 women in their lifetime will have a stroke, Dr. Wilson said. It’s time to call 911 if any of these symptoms of a stroke are present and occur abruptly:

● Loss of balance, dizziness, headache

● Sudden loss of vision in one or both eyes

● Face looks uneven

● Arm weakness

● Speech difficulty

According to the American Heart Association and the National Institutes of Health, various types of vascular diseases (affecting the arteries) strike African American women (36%) more than white men (19%), and white women (22%) are more affected than the men as well. Women who smoke are 25% more likely to develop coronary artery disease than male smokers. And diabetic women are more likely to die from heart disease than diabetic men.

How to Help Yourself

It’s critical to know the risk factors for artery disease. Keeping your overall cholesterol number under 200 is ideal; LDL (low-density lipoproteins) should be less than 100. Normal blood pressure is 120/80. And a body mass index (BMI) under 25, with a waist size of no more than 35 inches, is recommended.

Most important, the doctors all agreed, is that women need to take charge of their health by learning the warning signs of heart disease and making lifestyle changes if they are at risk. Even if they have low risk factors or no family history of heart disease, women should see their family doctor annually to monitor weight, blood pressure and cholesterol.

The most critical changes a woman can make to keep herself healthy and to lower risks of cardiovascular diseases are:

● Lowering sodium intake

● Eating and cooking healthy foods

● Moving regularly if not already active

● Quitting smoking

● Getting regular sleep

● Reducing stress

● Seeing a doctor for regular preventive care

The doctors stressed the importance of taking care of yourself. They referenced and agreed with the airline guideline of helping yourself before helping others. If you put off your own health, you’re risking not being there for your loved ones.

Some women have been putting off going to doctors’ offices because of COVID-19. The three doctors urged everyone not to cancel or postpone their appointments; all medical offices are taking necessary precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, so that should not play a role in their decision to get treated, they said.

Also, the doctors urged women to listen to their gut and to get a second opinion if they’re not taken seriously. Arm yourself with information and “do not let go” if you feel that something is just not right, Dr. Kondapaneni told everyone.

Dr. Wilson concurred: “Trust your gut,” she said.

If you would like to schedule a panel discussion on this health topic and/or others, please contact Michele Hanson at

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