8 Things You Didn't Know About Heart Disease

by Elizabeth Nolan Brown

Today marks National Wear Red Day, a campaign organized by the American Heart Association/Go Red For Women to raise awareness among women about heart disease. For a long time — and maybe still today — heart disease was seen as mainly an old man's problem. But it's also the number one killer of American women, claiming some 500,000 lives each year. While one in 31 American women dies annually from breast cancer, one in three dies annually from heart disease. Surprised? Here are eight things many people don't know about heart disease.

1. Young people get heart disease too

Underlying heart conditions, birth control pills, smoking, a lack of physical activity, and a poor diet can all contribute to heart disease development in young women, according to the AHA. The the number of people in their teens and 20s showing signs of heart disease has been on the rise, and cardiovascular deaths among women ages 35 to 44 are up. Overall, some four to 10 percent of all heart attacks occur in people under age 45.

2. Fitness alone won't prevent heart disease (and neither will being thin)

"Even if you’re a yoga-loving, marathon-running workout fiend, your risk for heart disease isn’t completely eliminated," the AHA says. "Factors like cholesterol, eating habits, and smoking can counterbalance your other healthy habits. You can be thin and have high cholesterol," or a genetic predisposition to heart trouble. Ninety percent of women have at least one heart disease risk factor.

3. Sugar is a major contributor to heart disease

People tend to think of fatty and fried foods as bad for the heart, and both are. But sugar may be as bad or worse. A body of evidence has linked sugar and sugar-sweetened drinks (such as sodas, fruit juices, and bottled teas) to increased risk of heart disease and/or heart attack. A new study linked high sugar consumption — defined as about a quarter or more of total daily calories — with double the chance of dying from heart disease. For people who took in about a fifth of their daily calories from sugar, the risk was 38 percent higher.

"The majority of us are consuming more added sugar than the recommendations," Quanhe Yang, lead study author and an epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told Bloomberg News. While there is no specific national guideline for sugar consumption, the Institute of Medicine recommends less than 25 percent of total calories, while the World Health Organization says less than 10 percent. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 100 calories a day from sugar for women.

4. Diet soda drinkers may also be at risk

The artificial sweeteners in diet soda have been linked to metabolic syndrome (hypertension, high cholesterol, etc.), diabetes, and heart disease. In one study, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine in 2012, adults who drank one diet soda per day were 44 percent more likely to suffer a heart attack (though of course this doesn't mean diet drinks alone are to blame).

5. Not all fats are bad for the heart

For a while, the low-fat diet craze espoused the wisdom of avoiding all fats to avoid heart disease (and other issues). But there's a big problem with this blanket approach to fats. While some fats (in particular trans fats and certain saturated fats) have been linked to heart disease, heart attacks, and stroke, other fats have a heart protective effect. Omega-3 fatty acids — a type of polyunsaturated fat found in fish oil, hemp hearts, chia seeds, flaxseed, some vegetable oils, and some meat and eggs — are especially beneficial. Monounsaturated fats, found in olive oil and avocados, are also good.

But watch out for omega-6 fatty acids. Polyunsaturated fats that are beneficial in small quantities, these are also pro-inflammatory and cause a thickening of the blood. Commonly found in fried foods, vegetables oils such as corn, safflower, and soybean, they've been linked to had a higher risk of dying from heart disease among other maladies.

6. Hormonal birth control may up your risk

Researchers have found a link between hormonal birth control pills and an increased in blood pressure in some women, especially those who are overweight, have kidney disease, or have a family history of high blood pressure. In addition, taking hormonal birth control combined with smoking has been shown to raise a woman's risk of heart disease by 20 percent.

7. Heart disease is harder on black and Latino women

Black women have rates of heart disease twice as high as white women, and are also more likely to die from heart disease than any other group. And Hispanic women are likely to develop heart disease 10 years earlier than white women.

8. Women's heart attack symptoms are different than men's

OK, you've probably heard this one before. But do you know how women experience heart attacks? Many women don't, says the American Heart Association. "For instance, that pain in your jaw, neck or back? Don’t assume it‘s just from the gym or a little extra stress. They could be symptoms of a heart attack."

The most common symptoms in women (as in men) are chest pain and discomfort — an "uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back." But women are more likely to experience other symptoms, such as:

  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • Shortness of breath, with or without chest discomfort
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat
  • Getting nauseous or lightheaded