Heart Disease Leads Causes of Death for Women

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Cardiovascular disease is now recognized as the leading cause of death in women, according to Dr. Nausheen Akhter.

Though many women may think cancer or stroke pose a higher risk, Akhter shows the charts that back up medical fact. A 32 percent chance - that's the lifetime risk for a woman over 40 of developing coronary artery disease. The disease can lead to a fatal heart attack.

Akhter focused on symptoms that women often ignore and on prevention tips at her seminar on "Cardiovascular Disease and Women" held at Northwestern Memorial Hospital on Tuesday.

Akhter is a cardiologist at the hospital and an instructor at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. Her clinical specializations include women and heart disease, echocardiology and general cardiology.

Here is what women need to know about coronary heart disease and how to prevent it. Dr. Nausheen Akhter specializes in cardiovascular disease and what women in particular need to do to prevent this life-threatening condition. (Courtesy of Northwestern Memorial Hospital)Dr. Nausheen Akhter specializes in cardiovascular disease and what women in particular need to do to prevent this life-threatening condition. (Courtesy of Northwestern Memorial Hospital)

What are the predominant risk factors for coronary artery disease?

When we look at a patient, we look at what their cardiovascular risk is. One of the things we use is the Framingham Risk Calculator and so there were a few of those characteristics listed there: age, hypertension, diabetes, family history, smoking history, those are some of the main ones.

Is there any age group that’s most at risk because they are not aware of symptoms or seeking treatment?
Generally, we’re finding heart disease in the 70s and up. But I think that women who are most at risk are younger women.

How can women protect themselves?
I don’t think that women pay enough attention to their health. I think that the assumption is, with heart disease too, we have a little bit of this benefit from having estrogen because [estrogen] pushes heart disease off to an older age. However, as women, we need to be conscious what we’re putting into ourselves: if we’re smokers, our diet, exercising on a regular basis.

What are the treatment options for someone who’s been diagnosed?
Some treatment options are to control your blood pressure, Omega-3 fatty acids and glycemic control for diabetics.

Are there any consequences if left untreated?
Basically, death.

What should women ask their doctors?
When they go to their doctors they should just ask am, “I at risk and/or what can I do to reduce my risk?” Knowing your family history, risk factors and numbers for your height, weight, cholesterol, glucose level, etc. can also help.

What are trends you are seeing with cardiovascular disease and women?
Microvascular disease - when the plaque builds up in the small arteries of the heart. That is an area we’re learning more about.

Can you tell us about diastolic heart failure, and its increasing prevalence in women?
Diastolic heart failure is a type of heart failure in which the problem is with the relaxation of the heart muscles. The heart is actually stiff and it can cause the same symptoms as someone whose heart is weak. It can cause fluid to back up in the lungs, it could cause you to be short of breath and develop fluid in the legs.

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