February is American Heart Month

While recently speaking to a women’s group, I was astounded that many women still didn’t realize that heart disease was their biggest health risk. This February, also known as American Heart Month, we need to get with it and pay attention because heart disease is our #1 killer.

Posted on | Leigh Vinocur, MD FACEP | Comments ()

While recently speaking to a women’s group, I was astounded that many women still didn’t realize that heart disease was their biggest health risk. This February, also known as American Heart Month, we need to get with it and pay attention because heart disease is our #1 killer.

According the American Heart Association, heart disease and other cardiovascular diseases actually kill more women than men. Heart Disease is almost 10 times more deadly than breast cancer. In fact, heart disease kills more women than all forms of cancer combined. 

And it seems as though women are still second-class citizens when it comes to heart disease. There is still a huge gender gap with respect to diagnosing and treating heart disease. Study after study (even within the last 3 years) has shown that we are not diagnosed as quickly as men. Nor are we treated with recommended medications and procedures as often as men. And perhaps that’s why when we are finally diagnosed and treated – we don’t fare as well.

Some of the blame lies with us; women notoriously put themselves last, especially when it comes to their health. We are always too busy taking care of everyone else in the family and we often neglect ourselves. I remember one Thanksgiving years ago, a women came into the ER and when I told her I needed to admit her because she was having a heart attack, she said, “I don’t have time for that! I got a turkey in the oven and 20 people coming over!”

And it isn’t that we blatantly ignore our symptoms; many women don’t even realize they are having symptoms of a heart attack. Unlike men who have easily identifiable, crushing chest pain and shortness of breath, many women have vague complaints that could be attributed to other problems. Women have atypical symptoms such as fatigue, indigestion, sweating, jaw pain or shoulder pain. Sometimes it can even be as non-specific as trouble sleeping! Who of us has not had any of these in descript complaints and shrugged them off!

In the past, doctors believed that estrogen would protect women from heart disease. Historically, it’s misconception that could have initially created the bias we see today in medicine. But one or more risk factors can totally negate any beneficial protection estrogen gives to women with respect to heart disease. 

So the key for us today is to know our risk factors. There are risk factors that we can’t do anything about like genetics and family history.  But there are some completely preventable risk factors and lifestyle changes we can make to protect ourselves, such as quitting smoking, modifying our diet to lower our intake of saturated fats and increasing our exercise routine. These lifestyle changes will put us in control and decrease our chances of developing the other conditions that contribute to heart disease such as, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity.

Remember prevention is the best intervention. Don’t wait until it is too late. And don’t you or your doctor be lulled in to false sense of security, because you don’t have the classic symptoms. This February be mindful and take control of your heart!

Blog written by Leigh Vinocur, MD FACEP
Dr. Leigh Vinocur is a board certified emergency physician and national spokesperson for the American College of Emergency...