Friday is National Wear Red Day and the beginning of “Go red for women month.” Heart disease kills more women each year than breast cancer. Nearly one in every three women will die from cardiovascular disease. By wearing red on National Wear Red Day, you can show solidarity against the loss of so many women’s lives to heart disease.
National Wear Red Day was established to remind women to immediately take steps to lower their risks of developing heart disease. It’s especially important for women between the ages of 40 and 60 because that’s the time when a woman’s risk of heart disease starts to rise. However, younger women also need to act now. Heart disease can take hold early — even in the early teen years.
Coronary heart disease is the main form of heart disease. A disorder of the blood vessels of the heart, coronary heart disease can lead to a heart attack. Heart attacks occur when an artery becomes blocked, preventing oxygen and nutrients from getting to the heart. Usually simply referred to as heart disease, it is one of several cardiovascular illnesses, which are diseases of the heart and blood vessel system. Other cardiovascular diseases include stroke, high blood pressure, angina (chest pain) and rheumatic heart disease.
While the average age for women to have a first heart attack is about 70, women are more likely than men to die within a few weeks of that attack. Twenty-three percent of women will die within one year after having an initial, recognized heart attack and about 35 percent of women who have had a heart attack will have another within six years. Coronary heart disease is a huge threat for American women but the threat can be eliminated or reduced by simply working to minimize modifiable risk factors.
National Wear Red Day is designed to help women make the connection between risk factors and their personal risk of developing heart disease. Women of all ages need to take action to protect their heart health. Risk factors are conditions (or habits) that make a person more likely to develop a disease. And when a disease is already present, they can increase the chances that the disease will get worse. Important risk factors for heart disease are:
• High blood pressure
• High blood cholesterol
• Being overweight
• Being physically inactive
• Having a family history of early heart disease
• Age (55 or older for women)
Among American women, age becomes a risk factor at 55. That is because women are more apt to get heart disease after menopause when the body’s production of estrogen drops. Heart disease rates are two to three times higher for postmenopausal women than for those of the same age who have not yet gone through menopause. Women who go through early menopause, either naturally or because they have had a hysterectomy, are twice as likely to develop heart disease as women of the same age who have not yet gone through menopause.
A family history of early heart disease is another risk factor that can’t be changed. If your father or brother had a heart attack before age 55, or if your mother or sister had one before age 65, you are more likely to get heart disease yourself.
Although certain risk factors cannot be changed, it is important to know that you can have control over many others. You can lower your risk of heart disease — regardless of your age, background or health status — and the process doesn’t have to be complicated. Protecting your heart can be as simple as taking a brisk walk, watching your diet a little more carefully or getting some support to maintain a healthy weight.
To protect your heart, it is important to address every risk factor you have. Make the changes gradually, one at a time. However, it is very important that you start working on them now — today. Each risk factor increases your chance of developing heart disease. And having more than one risk factor can be very serious because risk factors tend to “gang up” and worsen the effects of other risk factors. So, the message for National Wear Red Day is clear: Every woman needs to take her heart disease risk seriously — and take action now to reduce those risks.
While the most common heart attack symptom in both men and women is chest pain or discomfort, women are more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain. Know the following warning signs of a heart attack:
• Chest discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back. The discomfort can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.
• Discomfort in other areas of the upper body can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach. These are especially important if they occur during activity or exertion. Jaw pain is often ignored and chalked up to TMJ disease.
• Shortness of breath will often accompany chest discomfort and may also precede it.
• Other symptoms include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or light-headedness.
Ratcliffe is a consultant to the Coastal Health District. You can call her at 876-6399.