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February 03, 2022

Heart disease is the top killer of U.S. women, but many don't know it

The condition causes about 20 percent of female deaths, but most cases are preventable

Opinion Women's Health
Heart Disease Women Source/Image licensed from Ingram Image

Heart disease kills 1 in 5 American women – more than any other cause of death.

We are constantly inundated with national recognition days every year. Some are fun and lighthearted, like National Kazoo Day. Some are delicious – hello, National Pizza Day. Some days are more heartfelt, like the days we honor our siblings or the special women in our lives. But there is one day in particular, Go Red For Women, observed on Feb. 4 this year, which deserves just a little more acknowledgement. 

Actually, correct that – a lot more acknowledgement. This is because only 56% of women recognize that heart disease is their No. 1 killer. Organizations like the American Heart Association, Million Hearts and WISEWOMAN have worked tirelessly to increase awareness, yet despite these efforts, heart disease still accounts for approximately 1 in 5 female deaths in the United States. 

To help improve the lives of women globally, the Go Red campaign is a year-round initiative created by the AHA in an effort to increase awareness surrounding women's heart health by not only encouraging people to wear red, but empowering women to take charge of their heart health.

Most of us know the typical sign of heart disease, the classic "elephant-sitting-on-the-chest" feeling. But many are surprised to find out that chest pain is not always the presenting symptom of heart disease, especially in women. Many women can have atypical, or unusual symptoms, such as shortness of breath, pain in the jaw, neck or arm, nausea and even just extreme fatigue. These symptoms can happen while resting or with physical or emotional activity. A major issue for women is that these atypical symptoms can mimic stress from their daily routines and, as a result, are often times dismissed. 

As a cardiologist with a special interest in treating women's heart disease, I have seen how many women tend to put their own health last. Many women are caring for family members such as children, partners and aging parents, as well as working outside of the home. They attribute many of these symptoms, especially fatigue, to the everyday stress of life. Unfortunately, most are also surprised when in reality, it's a diagnosis of heart disease. 

Concetta Milano

Dr. Concetta Milano

It is just not enough that only 56% of women know their risk, when up to 80% of all heart disease can be prevented. You don't know what you don't know – and knowledge is key in combating cardiovascular disease. Some women are unaware that high blood pressure, high low-density lipoprotein, or LDL cholesterol, and even lack of sleep can put them at increased risk for heart disease, in addition to lifestyle choices and medical conditions like diabetes, smoking and leading a sedentary lifestyle. 

More than 1 in 3 women are living with heart disease right now, completely unaware. The AHA estimates that cardiovascular diseases, which includes stroke events, will claim the life of a woman every 80 seconds. 

So to women everywhere – be aware of the signs and symptoms of heart disease. Make your mental and physical health a priority each and every day, just like showering or brushing your teeth. Make time every day to decompress by meditating or exercising. Take the steps necessary to improve your mental wellness, which directly connects to the health of your heart. 

And most importantly…

Be armed with the knowledge necessary to take care of your heart health.

Five things women should remember

• Know the risk factors for heart disease
• Know the signs of heart disease, both typical and atypical 
• Know your family history
• Know your blood pressure and cholesterol numbers 
• Adapt healthy lifestyle choices

Concetta Milano, M.D. attended Drexel University College of Medicine for medical school and Thomas Jefferson University Hospital for Internal Medicine residency before completing a fellowship in Cardiology at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. Dr. Milano is a non-invasive cardiologist with Cardiology Consultants of Philadelphia and is affiliated with Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital (Methodist Division), and Roxborough Memorial Hospital.

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