Column: What women need to know about heart disease

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Commentary by Dr. Sujoy Phookan

February is American Heart Month, an annual observance that encourages people to focus on cardiovascular health and live a more heart-healthy lifestyle. Historically, there has been a misconception that heart disease primarily affects men. However, heart disease is the leading cause of death among women globally.

Know the symptoms

Coronary artery disease and heart attacks often present with chest pain in both women and men. However, women also frequently present without chest pain and experience subtler symptoms, such as shortness of breath, nausea, back or jaw pain and fatigue. These atypical symptoms can lead to misdiagnosis or delayed treatment.

Multiple risk factors

There are several risk factors that contribute to heart disease in men and women. These include age, diet, genetics and conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. Smoking, lack of physical activity, obesity and high-stress levels also heighten the risk. Conditions unique to women, including pregnancy complications, can increase the likelihood of heart disease later in life. Other conditions that predominantly affect women, such as breast cancer, menopause and autoimmune diseases, also increase the risk.

You may need to alter your lifestyle

Everyone should strive to get regular aerobic exercise and adopt a heart-healthy diet, limiting processed carbohydrates, sugar and saturated fats, while including fresh fruits, vegetables and lean protein. Smoking cessation and stress management are also encouraged. Everyone should see a primary care physician yearly and discuss any of their specific risks. Anyone who has significant concerns about heart disease can ask for a referral to a cardiologist.

Looking to the future.

By fostering awareness, advocating for gender-specific research and treatment strategies and promoting a healthy lifestyle, we can strive towards a future where heart disease no longer claims the lives of our mothers, sisters, daughters and friends prematurely. To learn more about heart disease and treatment options, visit iuhealth.org/heart.

Dr. Sujoy Phookan is a cardiologist at IU Health North and Saxony Hospitals


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