By Eric J. Uhrik, D.O.
Heart disease is the top killer of women in the United States. The majority of women between the ages of 40 and 60 have at least one risk factor for the disease. But, many do not realize it. They also don’t know about the sometimes subtle signals of a heart attack and stroke.
A common form of heart disease is coronary artery disease, which affects the blood vessels of your heart. Heart disease also includes atherosclerosis, or the thickening and hardening of your arteries, as well as stroke, peripheral vascular disease, and heart failure. The groundwork for heart disease can start in your 20s. Risk factors for heart disease are divided into those that suggest a major risk and those that lead to an increased risk. Major risk factors include high blood pressure and cholesterol, diabetes, obesity or being overweight, smoking, and age, among others. Factors that could lead to an increased risk include stress and excessive alcohol consumption. For women, that means more than one drink a day.
Starting at age 20, women should know their blood pressure and cholesterol levels and should have this checked at least every five years and possibly more often if you have increased risk factors such as family history of heart attacks at a young age (younger than 50 years of age). One red flag is a high level of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, which clogs arteries, and a low level of HDL (“good”) cholesterol, which clears arteries.
Knowing your risk factors is vital. The more risk factors you have and the worse they are the greater your risk for heart disease. Once you know your risk factors, you can learn whether you’re at high, intermediate, or low risk for heart disease. Then you can set goals and work with your health care provider to reach them through various lifestyle changes.
If you have to sit down after light activity such as after you clear the dishes, a heart attack could be in your near future. Unshakable fatigue and sleeplessness appear to be early warning signs of a woman’s heart disease. Other symptoms include shortness of breath (very common in women), nausea or heartburn, uncomfortable chest pressure (instead of chest pain, which is a more typical symptom for men, although it may still occur in women) and pain that spreads to the shoulders, neck, or arms.
For stroke, remember the acronym “BE FAST.” This acronym means a person experiencing a stroke will have a loss of balance, sudden vision problems in one or both eyes, facial numbness or drooping, numbness of weakness in one arm, the inability to speak or slurred speech and, finally, time to call 9-1-1.
If you experience or notice any of these symptoms of stroke and heart attack in someone else, especially if they last more than five minutes, call 9-1-1.
Eric J. Uhrik, D.O., is medical director of the Primary Stroke Center at Hackensack Meridian Health Raritan Bay Medical Center. A practicing neurologist for more than 20 years, Dr. Uhrik is board certified in Neurology, board eligible in Neurocritical Care, and certified in Emergency Neurological Life Support. For more information, call 732-324-4970 or visit www.hackensackmeridianhealth.org/services/stroke/.