What You Need To Know About Your Heart Health

Photographed By Alexandra Gavillet.
Just a few days after suffering a reported cardiac episode on her flight back to Los Angeles from London, actress, writer, and mental health advocate Carrie Fisher has died at the age of 60. We don't know many details at this point about Fisher's tragic death, but we do know that heart disease steals far too many women in their prime — yet it's still thought of as a "man's disease."

Women's symptoms tend to be explained away or go totally unnoticed. But heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiac problems are much more common among women than most of us realize. Here's what you need to know to deal with these conditions.
Heart Disease Affects Women Too
We tend to think of heart disease as an illness that men get. But it's the leading cause of death for men and women in the U.S. According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease was responsible for about half of all women's deaths in 2013, the most recent year for which data are available. That added up to 289,758 lives.

Doctors, too, have traditionally been resistant to diagnosing young women with heart problems — even when the consequences are serious — simply because they don't fit the classic picture of what heart disease "looks like." And, in turn, research suggests that women delay seeking care for their concerns for fear of being seen as "hysterical." So it's vital that you're on the lookout for the signs yourself and that your doctor takes your reports seriously.

Risk Factors For Women
Some people are more likely to have heart issues than others. Things that make it more likely for you to have heart disease include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and smoking. If that sounds like you, you're not alone: The CDC estimates that about 49% of all adult Americans have at least one of these three risk factors. Other factors include being overweight, being physically inactive, smoking, having an unhealthy diet, and having a family history of heart problems.

But some are more specific to women. For instance, during pregnancy, women may experience a sudden increase in blood pressure known as preeclampsia, which may raise your risk for heart disease later on. Gestational diabetes, another pregnancy complication, has also been shown to raise heart risk.

Additionally, mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety may also increase your risks for heart disease and are more common among women. This connection isn't fully understood at this point, but prioritizing your mental health is always a good idea.

Women's Symptoms May Be Different
A heart attack happens when a blockage in your arteries prevents blood flow to your heart muscle. This can lead to damage and even death of the heart muscle if blood flow is not restored quickly. (Contrary to popular belief, your heart does not suddenly stop pumping during a heart attack; that's cardiac arrest.)

According to the American Heart Association, the most common symptom in men and women is chest pain. That discomfort is often described as intense pressure, as if "an elephant is sitting on your chest." But there are other less common signs that women are more likely to have than men. Those include shortness of breath, pain in the jaw or back, and nausea or vomiting.

If you think you may be having a heart attack, you need help as quickly as possible. That means actually calling 911 — something both men and women don't do enough. We're often hesitant to call for help until we think our symptoms are "serious enough." But every minute you delay care is another minute that your heart muscle is not getting the oxygen-rich blood it needs, making it less likely for that muscle to recover. This can lead to lifelong heart complications and even death.

How To Stay Healthy
There are some things you just can't control. For instance, if you have a family history of heart disease, you're already fighting an uphill battle.

But we know that for everyone — including those with serious risk factors — staying physically active and eating a healthy diet significantly reduces your risk for cardiovascular disease. That means aiming for 150 minutes of moderate exercise every week and sticking with whole grains, fruits and veggies, and lean proteins as much as possible. Drink in moderation, which, according to the CDC, means no more than one drink a night for women. And seriously, please quit smoking.
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