February — the month of Valentines, chocolate, roses and celebrating our significant other. And of course, wearing something RED!
However, February is close to the heart for another very important reason. Did you know that heart disease continues to be the greatest health threat to women?
Cardiovascular disease and stroke are the leading cause of death for women in the United States annually. More than 200,000 women die each year from heart disease—five times the rate of mortality from breast cancer.
Frequently, heart disease is thought of a disease that affect men, however, the mortality rates based on gender are equal. However, only 54% of women recognize that heart disease can cause significant morbidity and mortality.
Like most diseases, in addition to gender disparities, there are also racial disparities. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for black and white women, Hispanic women die equally from heart disease and cancer, while for Native American, Asian Americans and Pacific Islander women, heart disease is the second leading cause of mortality, with cancer being first.
What is concerning is not only the rates of heart disease in women but how it is rarely recognized—both patients and physicians. Over 60% of women who die suddenly from cardiovascular disease did not exhibit any prior symptoms.
So what are the symptoms? Women are more likely than men to report stomach pain, shortness of breath, chest palpitations, nausea and dizziness. Unfortunately, when a woman presents with these symptoms, they may be dismissed as a cause from another organ system. Many times, heart disease symptoms manifest similarly to reflux symptoms. The variation in symptoms does cause a under-diagnosis of heart disease. In fact, one study showed that 53% of women said their physician (or health care provider) did not think their symptoms were related to their heart, compared to only 37% of men.
So what can we, as women, do? First, check out the Go Red For Women website. It has important, easy-to-read information for women of all backgrounds. What are steps you can take in your daily lives?
- Most important is staying at a healthy weight. As we get older, between babies, hormones and menopause, our metabolism shifts, sometimes making it hard to lose unwanted weight. Be realistic with your goals, avoid fad diets/cleanses, and be sure to speak to your physician before starting a new dietary and exercise regimen. For many, it’s making small, sustainable changes. Don’t think of it as something you are giving up, but something you are changing, adding to enhance your life.
- Exercise/physical activity is vital for heart health. No, you don’t have to start running 3 miles a day. You start at where YOU are physically and mentally ready. Again, check with your physician. Make a short-term goal of walking, moving, getting your heart rate up 3 times a week. Then go from there.
- Quit smoking/tobacco usage. This, by far, is one of the greatest risk factors for heart disease and stroke. Whether you quit cold turkey, need nicotine replacement or a specialized medication, your physician can discuss these options. In many states, there is a QUIT-NOW program that can send you text messages to continue to encourage you—a type of virtual peer support!
- Add some color to your life! Fruits and vegetables, raw or cooked. There are so many great resources for heart-healthy recipes. And this isn’t just for you. Cook healthy for your entire family.
- Take time for self-care. As professional women in healthcare, we are SO busy—always taking care of others. Please do not minimize the importance of your mental health. Get enough sleep. If that means turning off the computer/TV/phone and just relaxing with a book before bed, then do it. It will help you to relax and shut. off. that. brain. We are always making checklists in our head, right ladies?!?
- Find something that relaxes you so you can decrease your stress level. In both our professional and personal live, even though we love our jobs and families, our lives are stressful. Constantly on the go. Take some time out for yourself each day, whether it’s 5 minutes or 30 minutes. Again, start small. Meditate, take a walk, do some yoga, knit or read—whatever it is that relaxes you. You will also find that you may even sleep better!
So here’s to all of you beautiful ladies!!! Wear RED, feel fabulous and take care of that beautiful heart <3
Natasha K. Sriraman, MD MPH FAAP FABM is an Academic Pediatrician and Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Children’s Hospital of the Kings’ Daughters/Eastern Virginia Medical School. She is an Editor for the Women In White Coats blog and coauthor of “The Chronicles of Women in White Coats.” She can be followed on Instagram @Natasha.Mom.MD