Massachusetts Medical Society: Physician Focus: Women and Heart Disease

Physician Focus: Women and Heart Disease

Program Highlights: 

  • Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death in American women, claiming 400,000 lives a year - more than all cancers combined.
  • The biggest risk factors for heart disease are family history and age. Heart disease in a father, mother, sister, or brother is a particular concern, and the risk rises as women get older.
  • Many of the risks of heart disease can be controlled with a healthy lifestyle, keeping blood pressure and cholesterol levels in check, and maintaining a healthy weight.

Cardiovascular disease claims more women’s lives each year than all cancers combined, yet nearly half of women - 44 percent according to a recent survey by the American Heart Association - are unaware that it’s the number one threat to their health.

Why is cardiovascular disease such a threat? And why aren’t more women aware of the risk?

One reason is a lack of research focusing on women. “Most of the studies on heart disease that were done included mostly men,” says Malissa Wood, M.D. “Women were not thought to be candidates for heart disease, so they were not included in the studies."

“We’re now beginning to focus on women in research, as well as clinically,” Dr. Wood continues, “so women are beginning to become more aware that they have risks for heart disease."

Dr. Wood and her colleague, Nandita Scott, M.D., appear in the December edition of Physician Focus to discuss women and heart disease, why cardiovascular disease is such a threat to women, and what women can do to reduce the risks.

The physicians are Co-Directors of the Corrigan Women’s Heart Health Center at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Dr. Wood is also Director of the MGH Corrigan-Minehan Fellowship Program in Women’s Cardiovascular Disease, and Dr. Scott is Co-Director of the MGH Cardiovascular Disease and Pregnancy Service. Hosting this edition, produced in cooperation with the Massachusetts Medical Society’s Committee on Women in Medicine, is Mavis Jaworski, M.D., a primary care physician in Beverly, Mass.

The physicians are quick to point out that cardiovascular disease involves more than just conditions of the heart. Cardiovascular disease is a term applied to any condition related to the heart; it can include stroke, blood vessel disease, blood clots, valve disease, or blockages in arteries, as well as heart attacks.

One of the biggest risks for women getting heart disease, say the physicians, is family history, particularly if an immediate family member – father mother, sister, or brother – has a history of heart disease. Age is another primary risk: as women age, the risk for heart disease rises.

Despite the risks, says Dr. Scott, many cardiovascular conditions are preventable. “The keys are taking good care of yourself, eating a healthy diet, exercising, not smoking, and making sure you know what your cholesterol and blood pressure levels are.”

Another key to prevention: partnering with your health care provider.

“Many women don’t go to their physician or nurse practitioner regularly,” says Dr. Wood. “It’s very important to have that partnership, so you can stay on top of your numbers [cholesterol and blood pressure levels], be aware of your risks, and manage your individual risk factors on a day-to-day basis."

Like so many other areas in health and medicine, the physicians says the most important steps women can take to avoid heart disease are preventive ones.

They note that so many women are managing their children, their parents, their spouses and partners, and working, and in trying to do all of those things, they forget to take care of themselves. They don’t pay attention to their blood pressure, cholesterol, how much they weigh, how much they drink, or how stressed they are.

“The majority of heart disease is preventable,” Dr. Wood emphasizes. “Take the steps you need to take to prevent heart disease, and find people around you to support healthy habits."

Watch the above video for the complete discussion, including more conversation about why women are so susceptible to heart problems, how heart disease can affect pregnancy, the danger signs of stroke, why high blood pressure is so dangerous, and what women should do to screen for heart disease.

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