Facts you must know to minimize your heart attack risks?

Heart disease is the nation’s number-one killer and will claim the lives of more than 230,000 women this year, nearly six times the death toll of breast cancer.

Yet doctors still underestimate women’s heart disease risks. This is one reason that vigilance is so important – and the sooner the better. Many young women think that heart disease won’t happen to them or if it does, it won’t hit them until they’re much older. But it’s a disease of adolescence that manifests itself later on. Here’s what you need to know about your risk.

1. Women’s heart disease looks different – When men have heart disease, their large arteries are clogged by fatty plaques, but the same is not true of women. In fact, as many as three million American women suffer instead from microvascular dysfunction, a condition in which the tiny arteries – or microvessels of the circulatory system – fail to expand when they should or go into spasms, often when someone is under physical or emotional stress. This can severely limit the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart muscle, causing extreme pain and fatigue and can sometimes lead to a heart attack.

2. The symptoms are more understated – Women often don’t get what doctors call the “Hollywood Heart Attack”, when they’re gasping for breath, dropping in sweat, and gripped by crushing pains. Instead, women’s complaints can be vague: feeling very tired, an upset stomach, pain in the jaw or back, shortness of breath, numbness in one or both arms, sleep disturbances or heart palpitations. About 25 to 50 percent of women experience atypical symptoms. All of these indications can be red flags that arteries have dangerously narrowed or that you’re suffering from a blockage. Unfortunately, women often delay calling 911 because they doubt their symptoms signal a heart attack – on average, women take two to four hours longer than men to respond to such signs. When they get to the ER, they’re often sent home because doctors dismiss their symptoms, too. And the upshot from this is that women are more likely to die from a heart attack than men.

3. Belly fat is bad – We may despise the cellulite on our thighs, but it’s the fat that collects around our waist that can kill us. Belly fat is a bigger risk factor for heart disease for women than cholesterol. A waist circumference of more than 35 inches for women is downright dangerous. The good news is that lifestyle strategies can keep this fat at bay: Cut out sugars and carbs, exercise, and stay trim.

4. Standard tests may miss heart disease in women – For many women, exercise stress tests and angiograms, which are the gold standard for diagnosing heart disease risks, don’t pick up problems occurring in the microvessels or spot plaque that is spread evenly in the arterial walls or that collects in the tiny arteries. Consequently, patients may not receive the preventive medications – statins, blood pressure drugs, or medicines like aspirin that can improve blood flow around the blockages – that could save their lives.

5. Women develop heart disease later than men – Women of all ages can – and do – have heart attacks, but they don’t usually develop heart disease until their 60s. Once they reach 65, however, their risk for heart disease is the same as men of that age.

6. Diabetes is more dangerous for women – Being diabetic triples a woman’s odds of developing heart disease, and women with diabetes are more likely to die from a heart attack than diabetic men. So if you’re diabetic, or even borderline, you’re at a much greater risk.

7. LDL isn’t the whole story – We’ve all read about the importance of controlling levels of artery-clogging LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, mainly through the use of prescription drugs such as statins. But controlling two other blood fats – HDL (high-density lipoprotein) and triglycerides – may be even more important for women, because they seem to predict a higher risk for heart disease. Here’s how it shakes down: HDL is the good guy, the garbage truck that vacuums up excess cholesterol from the arteries and dumps it into the liver. Triglycerides ferry fatty acids into your blood after eating and are a source of fuel for active muscles. But when our body produces too many triglycerides – eating sugary, starchy or fatty foods will do it – they get stored in fat cells. And once triglycerides go up, the liver produces less HDL. You can ratchet up your HDL level by quitting smoking and exercising for at least 30 minutes a day. Trimming excess weight can also help you dial down triglycerides, as can shunning simple carbs.

8. Cholesterol isn’t the only risk factor – Even people with normal cholesterol levels have heart attacks. For women, evidence suggest that high blood pressure is as dangerous as high LDLs. In a Harvard study of women who died suddenly from a heart attack, 69 percent had no history of cardiac disease. The key predictors were smoking, diabetes, and high blood pressure, not high cholesterol.

9. Heart attacks are preventable – Sure, family history, diabetes, and getting older increase your odds, but unhealthy habits – filling up on fat-laden foods, carrying excess weight, not getting exercise, not eating healthy meals, and smoking – are responsible for up to 80 percent of heart attacks. Prevention is the best strategy. Don’t wait until you have fully developed heart disease.

Phone it in
In a recent survey, over half the women said they would not call 911 right away if they suspected they were having a heart attack; instead they’d lie down, take an aspirin, or drive themselves to the hospital. Bit mistake!

The right fit
A healthy diet and regular exercise are the keys to a healthy heart. Experts recommend at least 30 minutes of exercise a day, but if you can’t find the time, don’t give up! Break up your workouts into 10-minute segments.

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