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Ladies, Love Your Body, Protect Your Heart

Heart disease is the number one killer of women, not breast cancer. That fact may be surprising to many people given all of the media attention and prevention efforts surrounding breast cancer.
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There are some things in life that should clearly be ignored. The telemarketer who calls your house at all hours of the day and night, the endless commercials and newspaper ads claiming unbelievable weight loss results with minimal effort, and any health news story that promises a "miracle" or "cure."

But, there is one thing in life that should never, ever be ignored, and that is your body. Your beautiful, precious, body that fuels your passions, hopes and dreams.

Being mindful of your body, paying attention to what your body is telling you, and loving your body can be helpful to protect you from heart disease. There are steps you can take to help prevent you from heart disease, but it's your choice. No one can force you.

Heart disease is the number one killer of women, not breast cancer. That fact may be surprising to many people given all of the media attention and prevention efforts surrounding breast cancer. So let me say it again ... "Heart disease is the number one killer of women!"

Just like the fight against breast cancer, we in the media should focus on raising awareness among women in fighting and preventing heart disease. As with all health prevention, it starts with you. There are simple lifestyle choices you can make to help prevent you from heart disease, but it's your choice. No one can force you.

There is wonderful information on the internet on women and heart disease, and fortunately finding accurate information isn't difficult.

Having accurate information at your finger tips is extremely helpful; but then what? You read a post or and article and then move on. You can choose to absorb some of the information and decide for yourself if you would like to make changes in your life for better health. It is not as hard as you think.

No one can force you to eat healthy, exercise or to even make sure that you know what your blood pressure is. It's up to you to decide what's important in your life and if your body is precious enough to keep it healthy, that's your choice, and you can make it happen. Making changes sometimes can be difficult, but by first recognizing that you need to make changes you have already begun to win the battle. You can begin to devise your own plan around making changes for a healthy spectacular you.

So I hope after reading this post you don't just move on, but I hope you begin to take action to keep your beautiful body healthy and protect your heart. Heart disease is preventable and by being proactive and taking charge of your health you can prevent this disease.

It's A Big Deal

"Heart disease in women is a big deal," says Randolph P.Martin M.D. F.A.C.C. F.A.S.E., Medical Director of Cardiovascular Imaging Chief Structural and Valvular Heart Disease-Piedmont Heart Institute-Atlanta, Georgia and Emeritus Professor of Medicine Emory Medical School. "It kills five to eight times more women than breast cancer," he adds. "Women today think cancer is the major threat and while cancer can be devastating, it pales in comparison to the toll that heart disease takes on women."

Heart Disease Myth Debunked

The biggest myth about heart disease is that "women don't get heart disease like men, women think they are immune to heart disease," said Peggy Morley, R.N., M.S., C.C.N.S., A.N.P.-C., Cardiology CNS/Nurse Practitioner at Hoag Heart & Vascular Institute, Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian, Newport Beach, CA, "yet 500,000 women die each year of heart disease."

Truthfully, women are not immune to heart disease and its killing women faster than any other disease.

Hollywood Heart Attack Often Depicts A Man

Ladies, quick! What are the symptoms of a heart attack in women? Do you know that the symptoms of a heart attack in women are different than men? How did you answer? Did you say crushing chest pain? Well, while that certainly can be a symptom, do you know that severe fatigue or severe indigestion can be signs of a heart attack in women? (The symptoms will be explored below.)

When thinking about someone having a heart attack, it's easy to think about the classic Hollywood example; the man clutching his chest, gasping for a breath and falling to the ground.

In fact, women can have completely different symptoms including increased shortness of breath with customary activities and feelings of nausea, says Dr. Martin. Below, are symptoms of a heart attack that women can experience.

Know the symptoms of a heart attack in women:

  • Chest pain or pressure or discomfort
  • Increased shortness of breath with customary activities
  • Unusual extreme fatigue*
  • Significant indigestion especially with exertion
  • Feelings of nausea/vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Pain or pressure in the back or high chest, between shoulder blades
  • Pain or discomfort (pressure) in one or both arms, neck, jaw, back, shoulder or stomach

It's important that you don't ignore the symptoms, seek treatment immediately.

*Dr. Martin notes that while all of us are fatigued a lot in life with all the stress of modern life, he's talking about a really overwhelming fatigue.

Symptoms of a heart attack in men:

  • Chest pain on exertion
  • Pain radiating to jaw or neck
  • Acute onset of severe pain accompanied by sweating and nausea

Tina, a Heart Attack Victim at 33 Years Old, Shares Her Story:

I am now a 54 year old female who first experienced a massive heart attack @ the age of 33. I was an athletic, active, and risk free woman at the height of my life with a wonderful husband and two children ages 8 and 4 ... I developed indigestion one late Saturday evening. We both did not take it too seriously however, after approximately 1 hour we decided to drive to his office (he is an internist) and do an EKG just to be safe. We live approx 10 minutes away from his office and two minutes into the ride I arrested in the car -- it was approximately 11 p.m., and we live in the country so he was afraid if he stopped I would die so he drove to the hospital which was about 6 minutes away. When we got there I was in a VFib and had seizures -- I was resuscitated, shocked multiple times, stabilized, and transferred to a larger center in a decorticate position. At that point, he was told I would not survive as my EF was in the 20's and they thought I would be brain damaged. I remained in a coma for 10 days and amazingly woke up one day. I was HYSTERICAL to say the least and had no idea where I was or why. I ended up being hospitalized for a month due to other complications ... and had a 2 year recovery ... I had a preventive Defibrillator implanted in February ... I realize I never told you the reason for my heart attack -- I had a coronary spasm -- imagine that -- back in 1989 they really did not know what to do for me as I was one of the youngest people ever to have a heart attack not related to a blockage and they only assumed it was caused by a spasm -- my D/C summary final sentence states "regret to say that we are unable to determine the cause of this attack" I have challenged the medical community for 20 years and I have had the pleasure of dealing with some of the most open minded cardiologists as well as those who had a tendency to treat me like the everyday heart patient with CAD -- it has been a miraculous journey.

Tina Fellin is part of the WomenHeart Support Community at Inspire.


A large study called the INTERHEART Study showed that there are nine major risk factors that account for heart attacks, and the good news is, says Dr. Martin, "heart disease is preventable."

"INTERHEART is a large, international, standardised, case-control study, designed as an initial step to assess the importance of risk factors for coronary heart disease worldwide..." The study has shown that nine easily measured protective or risk factors (smoking, lipids, self-reported hypertension or diabetes, obesity, diet, physical activity, alcohol consumption, and psychosocial factors) are associated with more than 90 percent of the risk of an acute myocardial infarction in this large global case-control study. The INTERHEART investigators, led by Dr. Yusuf, found that these risk factors are consistent across all geographic regions and every racial/ethnic group worldwide and are consistent in men and women, and young and old.

Nine Major Risk Factors And Steps You Can Take To Live a Healthier Life

1. Smoking

Ladies, one of the best things you can do to prevent heart disease is to put an end to smoking. According to the INTERHEART Study, even smoking one to five cigarettes daily increases your risk for a heart attack by 40 percent. Second hand smoke should be avoided. Once you decide that you really want to take an actionable step to help keep your heart healthy, that's good news. There is help for nicotine addiction. There are smoking cessation programs that can help.

Love Your Body, Protect Your Heart Tip: If you smoke, quit!

2. High Cholesterol, High Triglycerides

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that occurs naturally in all parts of the body. Your body needs some cholesterol to work properly. But if you have too much in your blood, it can stick to the walls of your arteries. This is called plaque. Plaque can narrow your arteries or even block them.

Know your total cholesterol, your LDL (lousy or bad) cholesterol and your HDL (good cholesterol). Total cholesterol needs to be below 200 mg/dL.

HDL (good) cholesterol should be above 60 mg/dL. (In the average woman, they range from 50 to 60 mg/dL. An HDL cholesterol of 60 mg/dL or higher gives some protection against heart disease.)

LDL (lousy or bad) cholesterol should be less than 100 mg/dL.

Love Your Body, Protect Your Heart Tip: Know your total cholesterol, HDL and LDL, write them down. Also, you should limit the amount of foods you eat that contain saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol. These fats may cause plaque buildup in your arteries.

  • saturated fat (found in foods such as fatty cuts of meat, whole milk, cheese made from whole milk, ice cream, sherbet, frozen yogurt, butter, lard, cakes, cookies, doughnuts, sausage, regular mayonnaise, coconut, palm oil)
  • trans fat (found mainly in processed foods such as cakes, cookies, crackers, pies, stick or hard margarine, potato chips, corn chips)
  • cholesterol (found in foods such as liver, chicken and turkey giblets, pork, sausage, whole milk, cheese made from whole milk, ice cream, sherbet, frozen yogurt)

Triglycerides are a type of fat in the bloodstream and fat tissue. Too much of this type of fat can contribute to the hardening and narrowing of your arteries. This puts you at risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

Love Your Body, Protect Your Heart Tip: Know what your Triglycerides are, write it down, also a low-sugar, low-fat diet may help and limiting alcohol can help lower your Triglycerides. Cleveland Clinic offers helpful tips here.

3. High Blood Pressure (Hypertension)

Blood pressure is the force of your blood pushing against the walls of your arteries. Each time your heart beats, it pumps out blood into the arteries. Your blood pressure is highest when your heart beats, pumping the blood. This is called systolic pressure. When your heart is at rest, between beats, your blood pressure falls. This is the diastolic pressure.

Ideal blood pressure is less than 120/80.

Love Your Body, Protect Your Heart Tip: Learn how to take your own blood pressure and keep track of it.

4. Diabetes

Diabetes is a disease in which your blood glucose, or sugar, levels are too high. Glucose comes from the foods you eat. Insulin is a hormone that helps the glucose get into your cells to give them energy. With Type 1 diabetes, your body does not make insulin. With Type 2 diabetes, the more common type, your body does not make or use insulin well. Without enough insulin, the glucose stays in your blood. Over time, having too much glucose in your blood can cause serious problems. It can damage your eyes, kidneys, and nerves. Diabetes can also cause heart disease, stroke and even the need to remove a limb.

Fasting blood sugar should be below 100.

Love Your Body, Protect Your Heart Tip: Know your fasting blood sugar. If you have diabetes, learn to take charge of it. [More in Part 2 of 2]

5. Obesity

Are you overweight? Well, if you are, you're increasing your risk for heart disease. In fact, if you have fat around your belly, that's a major concern. That belly fat (or abdominal obesity) isn't healthy. Measure your waist, if it's over 35 inches, that's a problem. [Part 2 of 2 will focus on obesity.]

Love Your Body, Protect Your Heart Tip: Get a tape measure and measure your waist just above the belly button. You want it below 35 inches. If you're overweight, set a weight loss goal, exercise and eat healthy. Talk to your doctor to find out what your healthy weight goal.

6. Sedentary Lifestyle

Ok ladies, there's no excuse for being lazy. I know, we're all busy and it's so easy to make excuses, but stop being inactive and just move. Walking counts!

Love Your Body, Protect Your Heart Tip: Exercise 30 minutes per day, five days per week.

7. Poor Eating Habits

Following the Mediterranean diet is a good step towards good health. Lean proteins, fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, fish, and whole grains are good choices.

Track your fruits and vegetables.

The common Mediterranean dietary pattern consists of five characteristics: [source: American Heart Association]

  1. A high consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads and cereals, potatoes, beans, nuts and seeds
  2. Olive oil as a key source of monounsaturated fat (monounsaturated fat doesn't raise blood cholesterol levels the way saturated fat does)
  3. Dairy products, fish and poultry in low to moderate amounts; little red meat is eaten
  4. Eggs consumed zero to four times a week
  5. Wine in low to moderate amounts

Love Your Body, Protect Your Heart Tip: Follow the Mediterranean Diet, watch your salt intake.

8. Stress, Trapped in a Demanding Job, Feeling Job Strain

[Part 2 of 2 of this story will focus on the psychosocial factors.]

9. Alcohol Consumption

In the INTERHEART Study, "Regular alcohol use was defined as consumption three or more times a week." The study suggests that "advice about alcohol use could be best customized to individuals depending on their social, cultural, and religious backgrounds and the overall effect on their health."

Drinking too much alcohol can, over time, damage your heart and raise your blood pressure. If you drink alcohol, you should do so moderately. For women, moderate drinking means one drink per day. For men, it means two drinks per day. One drink counts as:

  • 5 ounces of wine
  • 12 ounces of beer
  • 1½ ounces of 80-proof hard liquor

Note: While alcohol consumption can be protective again heart attacks; always check with your physician before adding alcohol to your daily living plan. Also note, if you have high triglycerides, lowering alcohol intake may be necessary. Talk to your doctor.

Does Heart Disease Run in Your Family?

It's important to know if you have a family history of heart disease, says Morley. If you have a family history, "there's a pretty good chance that you'll have heart disease," she adds. Also, it's important to establish a relationship with a primary physician for a full physical, she says.

Empower Yourself, be Proactive, be in Charge, Know Your Numbers.

Ladies, do you know your numbers? (Find them out and write them here.)

Do you know your blood pressure?__________________________
Do you know your total cholesterol?_____________________________
Do you know your LDL? (Lousy or Bad cholesterol)_____________
Do you know your HDL? (Good cholesterol)_____________________
Do you know your triglycerides?______________________________
Do you know your fasting blood sugar?_________________________
Do you know your waist size?_________________________________
Do you have a family history of heart disease?______________

Empower Yourself, be Proactive, be in Charge and Ask Your Doctor Questions.

1. When do I need to have my total cholesterol, HDL and LDL rechecked?
2. How long typically does it take to get my numbers on track (to reach my cholesterol goals)?
3. Are dietary changes sufficient or do I need cholesterol lowering medicine? Is there a supplement that can be used instead?
4. Do I need an EKG?
5. Do I need a Stress Test?
6. Do I need a Stress Echo?
7. Do I need a Coronary Calcium Scan

Morley suggests that you ask about an EKG, Stress Test, Stress Echo and Coronary Calcium Scan if you have a family history of heart disease.

Tina Richards Shares Her Story:

I will be celebrating my 3rd anniversary on March 12 since my heart attack. I was 42 at the time and really didn't think I was at risk. It never occurred to me that I could have one at that age. To say the least, it felt very surreal. For a year or two prior I had noticed I was more fatigued and became breathless easier. I blew it off to working nights as an RN, raising 4 kids, being a pastor's wife and having asthma. I didn't know, even with being a nurse, that common warning signs for women are fatigue and breathlessness.

My first experience with discomfort in my chest was 2 days prior to my heart attack. I blew it off and figured if I could sleep, it couldn't be that bad. It was late evening at that point. So, I slept and didn't give it another thought. Two days later, after working a long hard 14 hour shift in the Birthing Center, after getting home, the sensation was back. I tried to do the same thing and go to bed but it was more intense this time although it felt more like an ache. I couldn't call it a pain. Once I mentioned to my once Paramedic husband about the discomfort, he rushed me to the hospital where they didn't recognize that I was having a heart attack for several hours. I was a young woman after all without the typical risk factors. There were many things that didn't go as they should but I am a survivor, not a victim and used the experience to help improve things at the very hospital I worked. I can honestly look back and be thankful for the experience. I learned so many things.

Tina Richards is a heart disease survivor, a 2009 WomenHeart Champion, wife and mother of four that loves her family dearly and is so thankful to the Lord for the gift of each new day.

"Women need to learn about the prevention, signs and symptoms and treatment of heart disease just as much as men do. There is a lot of publicity about breast cancer and fear of this disease gets women to be proactive with the recommendations for surveillance and management. But coronary artery disease is still the #1 killer in women. Unfortunately, women often don't recognize the symptoms of heart disease (which often manifests differently than it does in men) and they seek attention late," says Christina Birch, RN, ANP, Adult Nurse Practitioner at Berkeley Cardiovascular Medical Group, Berkeley, CA.


Ladies, let's see if you'll take something away from this post. Hopefully you will. Can you name the symptoms of heart attack in women now? Can you name the 9 risk factors that can contribute to a heart attack? Can you name healthy lifestyle choices? Are you going to write down your numbers? Will you ask your doctors questions? This post is for you to help empower you to be the most fabulous woman you can be. If you need help, ask for it. There are so many wonderful people in this world ready to help others. Also there are online support groups that can help you vent and share information.

Bottom Line

  • Know the symptoms of a heart attack
  • Know that the symptoms can be different for women
  • Know to seek immediate treatment if you experience any of the symptoms
  • Know the risk factors
  • Know your numbers
  • Know that it's okay to ask your doctor questions. Write them out before your office visit
  • Know there is help; online community support groups may help you
  • Know that you shouldn't ignore your body
  • Know that heart disease is the number one killer of women
  • Know that heart disease is preventable
  • Find fun in your life
  • Learn to Laugh
  • Surround yourself with happy people

"Women need to get very aggressive," says Dr. Martin. Women need to be proactive, know their numbers, and become engaged in their health. "The most important thing in life is to find some fun in your life and to laugh, he adds. Find friends you really enjoy."

Your Turn

We would love to hear from you. Do you practice prevention? Do you eat healthy and exercise? Do you know your numbers? Did you find this post helpful? Is there any part of it you'll take-away? What online support groups do you use? What tips do you have for maintaining a healthy diet?

As always, thank you for your time.

[Part 2 of 2 will focus on weight loss and psychosocial factors.]

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