Heart disease

No, it's not just a threat to men, but to women, too.

We wear pink ribbons to pledge our allegiance to the fight against breast cancer and red ribbons to demonstrate our dedication to eradicating AIDS. With all due respect to the wars on these devastating diseases, it's important to note that heart disease is actually the #1 killer in the U.S. -among both men and women.

For years, heart disease was considered to be "a man's disease." However, recent research shows that heart disease is a serious threat to women's health, too.

Heart disease and women

Recently, The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) set out to educate women about heart disease. To ACOG's credit, although heart health is not its specialty, it says it realizes that, "As primary care providers for the majority of women, ob-gyns recognize the importance of educating patients about the dangers of cardiovascular disease."

At a recent press briefing in New York, ACOG unveiled the following facts, highlighting the serious threat heart disease poses to women, in particular:

In every year since 1984, cardiovascular disease has claimed the lives of more women than men.
Forty-four percent of women who have heart attacks die within a year, compared with 27 percent of men.
The rate of having a second heart attack within six years of the first is 30 percent for women compared to 23 percent for men.

Approximately 35 percent of heart attacks in women go unnoticed or unreported -- partly because women's symptoms are more subtle than men's or because their symptoms are not always taken seriously.

What we can do about it

Despite the grim statistics, there is good news. Recent research shows that there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing heart disease. Here are just a few:

Lose weight, especially around the waist. Most women long for a flat stomach for "aesthetic" reasons, but recent research shows that slimming down your abdomen can lower your risk of developing heart disease, too. This research, published in a 1998 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), showed that women with a waist measurement of 30 inches or more have twice the risk of developing heart disease than do their more "svelte-waisted" counterparts. While sit-ups won't hurt, aerobic exercise is your best bet for shedding pounds, including those around the waist.

Reduce your intake of trans fats. For some time now, we've been advised to reduce our fat intake. Only recently, however, are we starting to understand the effects that different types of fat can have on our health. A 1997 study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, suggested that it's not just the total amount of fat consumed, but the types of fat consumed, which affect a woman's risk of developing heart disease. The study advises decreasing saturated fats (those found in meat and dairy products) and trans fats (those found in margarine and solid cooking fats) and replacing them with mono-unsaturated fats (such as olive and canola oils) and polyunsaturated fats (such as safflower and soybean oils).

Increase your intake of B vitamins. Both vitamin B6 and folate may help to prevent heart disease among women according to research published in another 1998 issue of JAMA. It found that women with folate and vitamin B6 intakes above the current recommended levels reduced their risk of developing heart disease by as much as 50 percent.
Of course, increasing one's intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; engaging in regular exercise; and avoiding cigarette smoking are all important components of a heart-healthy lifestyle.

Lastly, ACOG reports that while, in the past, most research about heart-disease treatment focused on men, recently studies including women are finally being conducted.

Hu, F.B., et al. "Dietary fat intake and the risk of coronary heart disease in women," The New England Journal of Medicine 337:1491-9, Nov. 20, 1997.

Rexrode, K.M., et al. "Abdominal adiposity and coronary heart disease in women," JAMA 280:1843-1848, Dec. 2, 1998.

Rimm, E.B., et al. "Folate and vitamin B6 from diet and supplements in relation to risk of coronary heart disease among women," JAMA 279:359-364, Feb. 4, 1998.


By Patricia Andersen-Parrado

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