Woman on a run checking her heart rate

Women's Health | 3 months ago

What Women Should Know About Heart Health

Contrary to popular belief, heart disease can affect women at any age. The good news? Most cardiac events can be prevented through education and lifestyle changes. Kelecia Brown, MD, answers some of the most frequently asked questions about women’s heart health and outlines some of the actions women can take to keep their heart healthy.

Did you know that heart disease is the leading cause of death among women in the United States? That’s right. According to the American Heart Association, heart disease is responsible for 1 out of every 3 female deaths. A healthy heart starts with education so it’s important to know the signs for early detection, understand the risks for prevention, and spread the word about the dangers of heart disease.

Here, Kelecia Brown, MD, an OB/GYN with Atrium Health Women’s Care Maternal Fetal Medicine shares some answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about women’s heart health along with tips on how to keep your heart healthy:

Q: How important is it for women to be aware of heart disease and conditions? 

A | Dr. Brown: Heart disease is the leading cause of death among women in the United States and is responsible for 1 out of every 3 female deaths. Disparities in cardiovascular disease outcomes also exist with higher rates of poor outcomes and death among nonwhite and lower income women. 

Q: Who is at risk for heart disease?

A | Dr. Brown:

  • High blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking are key risk factors for heart disease.
  • Several other medical conditions and lifestyle choices can also put women at a higher risk for heart disease, including diabetes, obesity, lack of exercise and an unhealthy diet.
  • Women can also experience unique life events such as pregnancy and menopause that can also impact their risk.

Learning about and understanding your personal risks for heart disease as well as your family history is vital to modifying these risk factors.

Q: How is heart disease different in men versus women?

A | Dr. Brown: Overall, a man’s heart and a woman’s heart are anatomically similar and serve similar functions. However, the genetic, hormonal, and physiologic composition of women are different than men and can influence how the heart responds to different life stressors, unique life phases (puberty, first occurrence of menstruation, pregnancy, menopause), cardiac medications and cardiac interventions. These differences and the impact on heart health are complex and incompletely understood.

Unfortunately, women continue to remain underrepresented in clinical trials. As more women participate in clinical trials, scientists are learning more about the many ways their hearts function differently from men's so better prevention measures and therapies can be developed and tailored towards women. 

Q: How should women take care of their heart?

A | Dr. Brown: According to the American Heart Association, 80% of cardiac events can be prevented through education and lifestyle changes.  Best practices include tobacco cessation, following a Mediterranean diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and increasing physical activity.  The American College of Cardiology recommends 150 minutes a week of moderately intense physical activity. Additionally, discuss your personal health numbers with your doctor to determine your risk for heart disease.  These numbers include total cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar and body mass index (BMI).

Q: In addition to heart disease in women, what should moms-to-be know about maternal cardiac disease?

A | Dr. Brown: Cardiovascular disease is now the leading cause of death in pregnant women and women in the postpartum period. Cardiovascular disease affects approximately 1-4% of the 4 million pregnancies in the United States. These rising trends in maternal deaths related to cardiovascular disease appears to be due to acquired heart disease such as cardiomyopathy. 

Women with a history of congenital or acquired heart disease who are contemplating pregnancy, should be evaluated by a cardiologist ideally before pregnancy for assessment of the effect pregnancy will have on the underlying cardiovascular disease and to optimize the underlying cardiac condition. A pre-pregnancy consultation by a maternal fetal medicine specialist is also recommended to discuss specific cardiac conditions and recommended pregnancy management. 

Pregnancy-specific conditions such as preeclampsia and gestational diabetes also predict future cardiovascular disease. Women with a history of preeclampsia and gestational diabetes should have ongoing care with a medical provider and continued risk modifications. 

A healthy heart starts with education so it’s important to know the signs for early detection, understand the risks for prevention, and spread the word about the dangers of heart disease.