February is American Heart Month, and this year Physical Solutions would like to highlight Go Red for Women, the American Heart Association’s signature women’s initiative. Go Red for Women is a comprehensive platform to support women in all stages of life. It is designed to increase women’s heart health awareness and serve as a catalyst for change to improve the lives of women globally.
Most heart disease and stroke deaths are preventable, but cardiovascular diseases continue to be a woman’s greatest health threat. Every minute in America, a woman dies of a heart attack, stroke or another form of cardiovascular disease. One out of every three women experiences some form of CVD, yet most of those cases are preventable if you lead a heart-healthy lifestyle.
Key health indicators
Some of the risk factors for cardiovascular disease include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, body weight/body mass index and high blood glucose. These numbers can serve as a wake-up call to jumpstart a healthier lifestyle. Testing should occur as follows:
- Blood pressure – every regular health care visit starting at age 20
- Cholesterol – every five years starting at age 20. More often if: total cholesterol is above 200; if you are a man older than 45 or a woman older than 50; if you’re a woman whose HDL is less than 50 or a man whose HDL is less than 40; if you have other cardiovascular risk factors
- Weight/body mass index – every health care visit starting at age 20
- Waist circumference – as needed starting at age 20
- Blood glucose – every three years starting at age 45
- Family history
- If know you have a family history of heart disease, it’s important to share that information with your doctor. This will help cue your physician into your genetics, making him or her more aware of additional risk factors.
Do you smoke? Are you physically inactive? If you’re a woman, do you drink more than one drink a day? Do you eat a diet high in fat? How do you respond to stress? The answers to all of the above could also impact your risk for heart disease and stroke.
- Becoming more active can lower your blood pressure by as much as 4 to 9 mm Hg, which is the same reduction in blood pressure you’d get by anti-hypertensive medications. Physical activity can also boost your levels of good cholesterol.
- Becoming more active keeps the No. 1 killer in women at bay by reducing heart disease by 30-40 percent and stroke by 25 percent in people who do regular moderate to vigorous activity.
- For each hour of regular exercise you get, you gain about two hours of additional life – even if you don’t start until middle age. So start moving. Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise daily, and you’ll be on your way to a heart healthy life.
Stroke in U.S. Women by the Numbers
- Women face higher risk of stroke
- One in 5 women will have a stroke. About 55,000 more women than men have a stroke each year.
- Stroke is the No. 4 cause of death in women. Stroke kills over 80,000 women a year.
- Among women, Black Women have the highest prevalence of stroke.
Talk to your health care provider about how to lower your risk and use the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association prevention guidelines:
Stroke risk increases in women who:
- Are pregnant. Pregnant women are three times more likely to have a stroke as women of the same age.
- Have preeclampsia. This dangerous condition of high blood pressure during pregnancy doubles stroke risk later in life.
- Take birth control pills. These can double the risk of stroke, especially in women with high blood pressure.
- Use hormone replacement therapy. It doesn’t lower it, like once thought.
- Have migraines with aura and smoke. Strokes are more common in women who have migraines with aura and smoke, compared with other women.
- Have atrial fibrillation. This quivering or irregular heartbeat can increase stroke risk fivefold. After age 75, it’s more common in women than men.
Stroke risk decreases in women who:
- Talk to their health care provider to determine safest medication if pregnant with high blood pressure.
- Discuss with their health care provider low-dose aspirin guidelines starting in the second trimester (week 12) to lower preeclampsia risk.
- Get their blood pressure checked before taking birth control pills and monitor every six months.
- Don’t use hormone replacement therapy to prevent stroke if postmenopausal.
- Quit smoking if they have migraines with aura.
- Get screened for atrial fibrillation if over age 75.
Men and women who have strokes often feel similar symptoms of stroke such as face drooping, arm weakness and speech difficulty. Other common signs include problems seeing out of one or both eyes and balance or coordination problems.
But some signs of stroke in women can be subtle enough to be missed or brushed off. That can lead to delays in getting time-sensitive, lifesaving treatments.
How do I know if I’m having a stroke?
Stroke Symptoms in Men and Women
- Numbness or weakness in face, arm or leg
- Trouble speaking or understanding speech
- Vision problems
- Trouble walking or a lack of coordination
- Severe headache without a known cause
Additional Stroke Symptoms in Women
- General weakness
- Disorientation and confusion or memory problems
- Nausea or vomiting
F.A.S.T. Warning Signs
Use the letters in F.A.S.T to spot a Stroke
F = Face Drooping – Does one side of the face droop or is it numb? Ask the person to smile. Is the person’s smile uneven?
A = Arm Weakness – Is one arm weak or numb? Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
S = Speech Difficulty – Is speech slurred?
T = Time to call 911
Heart attack symptoms can differ for men and women, but the most common symptom for both is chest pain. Women might also have non-chest pain symptoms and less obvious warning signs.
How do I know if I’m having a heart attack?
Symptoms in Women
- Chest pain, but not always
- Pain or pressure in the lower chest or upper abdomen
- Jaw, neck or upper back pain
- Nausea or vomiting
- Shortness of breath
- Extreme fatigue
Symptoms in Men
- Squeezing chest pressure or pain
- Jaw, neck or back pain
- Nausea or vomiting
- Shortness of breath
What do I do if I’m having a heart attack?
If you experience any of these signs or symptoms:
- Dial 911 immediately, follow the operator’s instructions and get to a hospital right away.
- Don’t drive yourself to the hospital.
- Try to stay as calm as possible and take deep, slow breaths while you wait for the emergency responders.
Women who think they’re healthy often misread the symptoms of a heart attack because they don’t think it could happen to them. That’s why it’s crucial to learn about heart attack, know your numbers and live heart-healthy.