Heart Disease: The Number One Killer of Women

illustration of heart with veins

Thanks to the efforts of marketing campaigns, awareness of breast cancer risk is widespread. However, women are not always aware that the biggest risk to their health is not breast-cancer but heart disease.

Each year, 40,000 women die of breast cancer in the US. But ten times as many women — 400,000— die annually of cardiovascular disease, an umbrella term which includes stroke and high blood pressure. In fact, cardiovascular disease is the most common cause of death in the US for both men and women.

Heart disease is often thought of as a man’s problem; this might be because at younger ages, it strikes more men than women. The average age for a first heart attack in a man is 66; in a woman it is 70. If this makes you think women are less likely than men to suffer the consequences of heart attacks, think again: more women die of heart disease each year than men. And at younger ages, heart disease is more deadly for a woman than it is for a man. A woman who has a heart attack when she is under 50 is twice as likely to die of it than a man who has a heart attack under 50.

Given the overall risk of heart disease, as well as its increased fatality in younger women, women need to increase their awareness of this disease.

Risk Factors

The five biggest risk factors for heart disease are the same for men and women: high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, smoking, and family history of cardiovascular disease. However, according to the Harvard Medical School, some of these risks affect women differently than they do men.

High cholesterol Estrogen levels in premenopausal women help protect them from heart disease, by both increasing their HDL and reducing their LDL cholesterol. However, after menopause this protection is gone, and women tend to have higher levels of total cholesterol than men.

Diabetes Female diabetics have a higher risk of heart disease than males. Although men typically develop heart disease at younger ages than women, women with diabetes follow the male age pattern.

Smoking Women who smoke are more likely than male smokers to have heart attacks.

Bottom line: women need to take their cardiovascular health more seriously. By doing so, they can avoid falling prey to the Number One Killer of women today.

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