When you think of the most dangerous health risk for women, do you think of breast cancer? Between the awareness campaigns, dozens of charities, and extensive media coverage of the subject, it's a valid assumption to make, but breast cancer isn't actually the most pressing threat to your health. Although the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women, it's not the most deadly; that would be lung cancer. However, cancer isn't even the leading cause of death in women in the United States — that dubious honor goes to heart disease.
It's typically thought of as a "man's problem," but cardiovascular disease is actually responsible for approximately one in four female deaths each year, according to the CDC. Furthermore, the American Heart Association (AHA) reports that more than one in three adult women have some form of the heart disease. However, in a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, researchers surveyed more than 1,000 women between the ages of 25 and 60 and turned up disturbing results: Despite the prevalence of heart disease today, most women aren't aware of the risk.
According to the survey, almost three quarters of women reported at least one risk factor for heart disease, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, but only 16 percent had been informed of their risk. However, 34 percent were told to lose weight by their doctor. Nearly half of those surveyed also reported putting off or canceling appointments until they had lost weight — in fact, the survey found that women were far more likely to defer going to an appointment than doing their taxes.
This striking lack of awareness likely owes itself to a number of reasons, but there were a few important factors. First of all, researchers noted in their paper that the vast majority of women rarely discuss heart health with other people, perhaps as the result of its associations. "Social stigma regarding body weight may contribute to women not discussing heart health," they wrote.
Researcher Dr. Noel Bairey Merz told NPR that this isn't helped by doctors, who tend to focus on breast health and weight in women while overlooking cardiovascular disease. Unfortunately, this is part of a trend that has continued for decades. "Despite stunning improvements in cardiovascular mortality for women in the past [two] decades... [coronary heart disease] remains understudied, underdiagnosed, and undertreated in women," wrote the AHA in a scientific statement earlier this year.
Even women who are aware of the risk factors for cardiovascular disease may not realize how it presents in women. Although the signs of a heart attack in men are well known, they're different, and less readily visible, in women. According to the AHA, women at risk for a heart attack should look out for the following symptoms:
- Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
- Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
- Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
- Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
- As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.
The study highlights why it's so important to stay aware of your risk for heart disease, even if your doctor doesn't bring it up. Women's symptoms may differ from the traditional "clutching your heart and falling over" narrative of a heart attack, but that doesn't make the event any less deadly. To learn more about heart disease in women, check out the CDC's fact sheet or the World Heart Federation's list of risk factors.
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