DOVER — Wentworth-Douglass Hospital cardiologist Dr. Whitney Coppolino said heart disease is the leading cause of death for women, as it is for men.
“Heart attacks and heart disease kills more women than all cancers combined,” Coppolino said. “That’s all cancers, not just breast cancer. It used to be thought of as a man’s disease but that has been totally debunked so women need to be talking about this and realizing their risks.”
The American Heart Association began the educational “Go Red” campaign in the early 2000s, to teach women about heart disease and what they can do about it. Coppolino said they are doing a great job of educating women about their risks, but many still discount the danger.
A person in their 30s can have a heart attack or it can be a person in their 90s. While they might have the classic chest crushing sensation of a heart attack that is often seen in men, Coppolino said women can present very differently.
“The classic elephant on the chest can and does happen,” she said. “Women can also present with nausea, extreme fatigue, shortness of breath on exertion. They can have jaw pain and think what they need is a dentist.”
A heart attack is not the only risk for women.
“Stroke is a part of cardiovascular disease,” Coppolino said. “Women need to know the FAST signs, and if they suspect they are having a stroke, they need to get help immediately. When it comes to a stroke, time is brain tissue. Women tend to ignore signs, much more than men do. They are the caregivers, but they usually take very little care of themselves.”
FAST is an acronym for
- Face: drooping and usually only on one side;
- Arm: weakness on one or both sides that can include the inability to lift the arm;
- Speech: that may be garbled or an inability to communicate, and
- Time: time to call 911.
“There are remarkable treatments for stroke now,” Coppolino said. “Getting help quickly enough could mean the person has little to no permanent ill effects.”
Pregnant women have unique risk factors when it comes to cardiovascular disease.
“Conditions like gestational diabetes, hypertension and preeclampsia can raise a woman’s risk for a heart attack or stroke,” Coppolino said.
Heart disease in older women can be more serious because they oftentimes have other comorbidities that can complicate their condition, she said.
Coppolino said cardiovascular disease is preventable in a great number pf people.
“Even people with a high genetic risk can take steps to improve their chances of avoiding heart diseases,” she said. “If they take steps to control their risk factors, they can bring their risk down to low or even zero. They can bring the risk down to the same as a person with no genetic factor.”
Controlling risk means making sure blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugars are under control. It means not smoking, eating right and making sure to get some form of regular exercise.
“The bottom line is to know your own body, to know when something does not seem right,” Coppolino said. “If it feels wrong, get help. Better to find out something is not a problem than it is to wait until it is too late.”