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What Younger Women Need to Know About Heart Disease

Baptist Health Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute

True or false: women don’t really need to worry about heart disease, as that’s something experienced by older men. If you answered “false,” congratulations – move to the head of the class. If you guessed “true,” you’ll want to read on. Heart disease is an equal opportunity killer, according to experts at Baptist Health Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute.

 

“Although women might not consider themselves to be at high risk for cardiovascular disease, it’s actually the number one cause of death among women in the United States,” says Andrea Vitello, M.D., a cardiologist at Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute. “The earlier in life women understand this, the less likely they’ll be to suffer serious heart disease later on.”

 

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), nearly 315,000 U.S. women die from heart disease every year, accounting for roughly one in every five female deaths. Yet just over half of women (56 percent) see heart disease as their leading killer, the CDC says.

 

More worrisome, says Dr. Vitello, is that many women may be ignoring subtle symptoms that could be an indicator of heart disease. “Studies have shown that women often put the health of other family members ahead of their own well-being,” she says. “They also tend to dismiss their own symptoms or write them off as something more routine like indigestion, stress or lack of sleep.”

 

Women may not even know they’re having a heart attack

Heart disease affects men and women differently at different points in their lives, says Dr. Vitello, and when it comes to heart attacks, both men and women can experience the typical symptoms known to many, such as an uncomfortable or painful pressure in the center of the chest, sometimes accompanied by pain in one or both arms.

 

Dr. Andrea Vitello

Andrea Vitello, M.D., a cardiologist with Baptist Health Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute

 

 

Women, however, are more likely to have a heart attack without chest pain and are more likely to experience other symptoms that men don’t, Dr. Vitello says. “These can include nausea, vomiting, back and jaw pain, palpitations, shortness of breath, lower chest pain or abdominal pain, or just feeling fatigued.”

 

Guidelines for medical professionals have evolved to better diagnose heart attacks in women, Dr. Vitello says. Unfortunately, many women who suffer a heart attack only find out at an emergency room or at their doctor’s office.

 

“Sometimes the symptoms are so subtle in women that they can have a heart attack and not even know it,” says Dr. Vitello. “Then all of a sudden, they learn they’re going to have to go on medication or they’re going to need a coronary stent procedure to open up blocked arteries or perhaps an even more complicated bypass surgery.”

 

If the need arises, Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute has a large team of cardiologists with deep expertise in a wide range of cardiovascular diseases, including cholesterol disorders, high blood pressure, structural heart disease and heart failure, Dr. Vitello says. “We also have access to advanced technology to diagnose, treat and manage long-term problems.”

 

Helping younger women maintain lifelong heart health

According to Dr. Vitello, heart disease is showing up in a growing number of younger women, and many more cases are likely going undiagnosed. The CDC says that roughly one in 16 U.S. women aged 20 and older (6.2 percent) have coronary heart disease, the most common type of heart disease.

 

“One of my goals at Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute is to help identify a younger patient population that might not otherwise be aware of their cardiovascular risk, and to provide the resources to help them maintain optimal cardiovascular health throughout their adult lives,” says Dr. Vitello.

 

Women should start focusing on their cardiovascular health at a younger age when they’re exposed to influences likely to shape their long-term behaviors, Dr. Vitello believes.

 

“It’s always better and easier to start healthy habits while we’re still young than it is to treat something after it has already developed,” Dr. Vitello explains, adding that by age 20, all adults should be adhering to lifelong healthy habits.

 

Dr. Vitello says that a heart-healthy lifestyle includes being physically active; eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and fiber with little or no processed foods, salt or added sugars; and getting plenty of sleep – seven to nine hours a day is recommended. “Also, refrain from smoking or vaping. All of these products and devices have negative effects on your heart health,” she adds.

 

A heart-healthy lifestyle also includes annual visits to your primary care physician who can check your blood pressure and order labs to identify your risk for heart disease. Unfortunately, says Dr. Vitello, traditional screening techniques often fall short for younger patients because some of the risk calculators don’t even start assessing one’s cardiovascular risk until they reach age 40.

 

Know your numbers, know your risk

“Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of mortality or people in their 50s or 60s but we also know that individuals can have develop these issues at a much younger age,” Dr. Vitello says. “If we can do something to intervene earlier in life, we’d prevent a lot of these problems from happening, or at least catch them while they can still be treated successfully.”

 

Primary care physicians who treat younger women should take their patients’ cardiovascular health and risk factors into account, Dr. Vitello says. “If you’re a woman in your 20s or 30s – even if you’re healthy – your doctor should be providing guidance tied to American Heart Association (AHA) dietary, physical activity and screening guidelines.”

 

Your doctor should also be periodically checking for high cholesterol as well as high blood pressure, which can be a red flag for other issues. “High blood pressure is becoming more common in the U.S. as weights and dietary habits have changed,” Dr. Vitello notes. “People generally don’t feel symptoms of high cholesterol or blood pressure, so it’s especially important to have those checked.”

 

Dr. Vitello also says it’s important for people to know their numbers – blood pressure, cholesterol, weight and body mass index (BMI). “If you have any symptoms that are concerning, or if you or your family have a history of heart disease, inflammatory disease or diabetes, be sure to let your doctor know, as these can cause problems for you later in life.”

Healthcare that Cares

With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 12 hospitals, more than 27,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 200 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.

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