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Published on: October 11, 2014
by Amy Kraft for Everyday Health:
Watch for Signs of Heart Conditions
Women make up more than half of all heart disease deaths in the United States each year, according to The Heart Foundation. In women, the risk of heart disease increases with age and is brought on by physiological changes such as the decline of estrogen during menopause.
Estrogen plays a role in improving the elasticity of the blood vessels and helping them to dilate. It also balances out good and bad cholesterol. Once menopause occurs though, women have higher levels of total cholesterol and increased levels of blood fat known as triglycerides.
Despite these changes, women can do a lot to prevent heart conditions. JoAnn M. Froody, MD Executive Director of the Pollin Women’s Heart Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, says that the answer starts with a healthy diet, regular exercise, and controlling other medical conditions. “More women live with heart disease and die from it, so it’s important to keep all risk factors controlled,” says Dr. Foody.
Here are several heart conditions women need to watch out for as they age and tips for how they can better protect themselves.
Keep Blood Pressure in Check
High blood pressure results from blood that is forcefully pushed through the blood vessels, putting excess strain on your heart. It is oftentimes symptomless and can lead to stroke and heart disease. Women have an increased risk of high blood pressure after menopause when hormonal changes make blood pressure more reactive to salts. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 70 percent of women in their 60s and 70s have high blood pressure. The figure jumps to 80 percent for women over 75.
JoAnn Manson, MD, chief of the Division of Preventive Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, says, “If a woman remains physically active and avoids the gain in fat tissue, she may not have an increased risk of hypertension.”
Get your blood pressure checked annually to ensure it is within a healthy range or to determine if you need to be placed on blood pressure medication.
Protect Against Abnormal Heartbeats
Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of heart arrhythmia and can lead to stroke or heart failure. In the United States in 2010, afib affected roughly 2.66 million, according to the CDC, and it affects more women than men. Studies have shown that women experience more symptoms during an episode of afib. Women are also at a higher risk of stroke. A woman nearing 75 years of age, the median age for the onset of afib, can reduce her risk by maintaining an active lifestyle, managing high blood pressure, and getting cholesterol levels under control.
“The most important lifestyle choice is losing weight,” says Hugh G. Calkins, MD, director of cardiac arrhythmia service at John Hopkins in Baltimore.
If you are diagnosed with afib, it’s important to talk to a doctor about the best treatment options, which may include anticoagulant medication or surgical ablation.
Know Risk Factors for Stroke Unique to Women
Stroke is the fourth leading cause of death and affects more women than men, according to the National Stroke Association. Although some risk factors are the same for women and men such as obesity, diabetes, and smoking — which doubles the risk of stroke — others are completely unique to women. Those risk factors include: using hormone replacement therapy to relieve menopausal symptoms, taking birth control pills, and having a combination of high triglycerides and a big waist.
Daily exercise, a healthy diet, and management of other conditions including diabetes are important to remain stroke free.
Understand Subtle Signs of Heart Attacks in Women
Heart attacks can happen to both men and women, but more women who have heart attacks die from them or do not respond as well to medical intervention. The Heart Foundation reported that nearly half a million women have heart attacks each year. Symptoms are subtler in women and tend to go overlooked. Some women experience indigestion, trouble sleeping, and anxiety one month prior to a heart attack. During an attack, symptoms include shortness of breath, chest pain, cold sweats and weak or heavy arms.
Heart disease tends to show up later in women than men, with the average age for a woman’s first heart attack at 70. You can start to reduce your risk by quitting bad habits such as smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, and minimizing intake of red meats, trans and saturated fats.
Protect Against Women’s No. 1 Killer
Coronary heart disease is the top killer of women in the United States. It is a build-up of plaque along the artery walls that, once hardened, can narrow the arteries and reduce the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart. A woman’s chance of getting CHD increases after menopause when cholesterol levels, blood pressure and fat around the abdomen increases. Risk factors for women include the use of hormone therapy to deal with menopausal symptoms, use of birth control pills, and pregnancy-related problems.
Coronary heart disease is often mistaken as stress or hypochondria in women. “Women and sometimes their providers tend to minimize symptoms and ascribe shortness of breath and fatigue to age,” says Dr. Foody. Take immediate action if you experience chest pain, shortness of breath and unexplained fatigue.
Emotions Weigh Heavily on the Heart
Broken heart syndrome, also called stress-induced (or Takotsubo) cardiomyopothy, is a heart condition brought on by extreme physical and emotional stress. Severe stress induces damage to the heart muscle. Broken heart syndrome is oftentimes misdiagnosed as a heart attack because of similar symptoms and test results. The most common symptom in women is extreme chest pain. The condition is treatable and most sufferers make a full recovery within a few weeks.
Managing stress and emotions is the best defense against broken heart syndrome. Consider meditation, relaxation breathing or yoga to keep stress levels low.
What to Know About a Lesser-Known Heart Condition
Coronary microvascular disease (MVD) is a heart condition where the walls of the tiny arteries in the heart are damaged, which can lead to decreased blood flow to the heart. Studies show that women are more likely than men to have coronary MVD because of the drop in estrogen levels that occurs during menopause. The disease can also occur in younger women and is more prevalent in people with diabetes or high blood pressure. Women experience atypical symptoms such as pain in the neck or throat, nausea and light-headedness.
Dr. Manson says that coronary MVD is hard to diagnose because the condition usually isn’t detected by standard tests used to diagnose coronary heart disease. More research is needed to find the best way to detect and treat the condition.
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