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Heart Disease. Are You At Risk?

Women die of heart disease more than all other types of cancer combined. Know your risk and begin heart healthy habits today.

When considering diseases that take the lives of women much too soon, breast cancer and cervical cancer usually come to mind first. What often gets overlooked is heart disease. It is the No. 1 killer of women age 50 and older and has subtle symptoms that can suddenly lead to dangerous warning signs. A significant risk factor of heart disease in women is one that can’t be treated—age. Dr. Katy Lonergan, a board-certified cardiologist and assistant professor of internal medicne at UT Southwestern Medical Center, says cardiologists are continually learning about new risk factors for heart disease in women, many that should be addressed earlier than they previously recognized.

“It’s never too soon to think about a healthy lifestyle that will reduce cardiac risk in the long term,” Dr. Lonergan says. “When we identify risk factors earlier, we are making a positive impact on women’s health in their 60s, 70s, and beyond. If a problem does arise, the earlier you can initiate interventions, the better off you will be.”

Dr. Lonergan says she sees patients in their 30s and 40s who need screenings and guidance on preventive care because they have a strong family history of heart disease, particularly a malignant family history with premature coronary artery disease. “Patients should see a cardiologist at any point in time when there are symptoms that are worrisome or unexplained that could be cardiac in nature,” she says. “Maybe a patient doesn’t know his or her risk factors. If something isn’t right, get it checked out.”

Risk factors of heart disease, in addition to family history and increased age, may include:

• High blood pressure

• High cholesterol

• Diabetes

• Chronic inactivity

• Obesity

• Pregnancy complications, such as gestational diabetes, pre-term, labor, or preeclampsia

Symptoms of heart disease may include:

• Chest pain or pressure

• Shortness of breath

• Palpitations

• Exercise limitations due to shortness of breath or chest discomfort

Women who have risk factors for heart disease can take preventive measures for heart health, including monitoring blood pressure, staying active with exercise, proper nutrition, and maintaining a healthy body weight. “I talk to my patients having a target or a goal when it comes to exercise,” Dr. Lonergan says. “It doesn’t have to be high intensity or vigorous exercise. Moderate exercise is an effective way to keep your cardiovascular risk lower. There is significant benefit that can be gained when you dedicate time in your day or week to exercise. For heart-healthy nutrition, I often advise a Mediterranean diet for general heart health or the DASH diet if someone is predisposed to high blood pressure. Remember, it’s still safe to call 911 and go to ER if you think you might be having a cardiac emergency.”

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