Heart Attacks Hit Middle-Aged Women
Heart attack risk is rising in U.S. women -- decades earlier than you might expect. Find out why, and what women can do about it.
Heart Attack Hazard: Stress
Stress may also be driving up the heart attack rate in middle-aged women.
But maybe not in the way you think.
Think of stress as a tipping point -- one that tilts away from healthy
self-care. "Stress is the last drop that fills the glass of water," Daviglus
says. "By itself, I don't believe stress can cause a heart attack, but it does
mean self-care goes to the bottom of the list. Trips to the gym, and healthy,
home-cooked meals take backstage. And women may not take the time to get
regular checkups" if they're too stressed to tend to themselves, she says.
A stress-free life isn't realistic. But your response to stress may matter
more than the stress itself.
"It's not so much stress but how you deal with it. If you eat or drink too
much to deal with stress, that is going to increase your risk," Redberg says.
"But if you walk, take Pilates, do deep breathing, or have other positive
coping mechanisms," you'll be helping your heart health, she says. Build your
stress management skills, because you probably won't be able to get rid of
all your stressors.
Heart Attack Hazard: Unrecognized Risks
Another threat to middle-aged women's hearts is a gender gap in recognizing
and addressing risk factors that can be prevented -- such as high blood
pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and smoking.
Rench had a risk factor she couldn't help: Her family history of heart
disease. She says that before her first heart attack, she told her doctor that
her parents and two brothers had died of heart disease and asked if there were
steps she should take to prevent having a heart attack herself. Her doctor
replied, "'Women do not have heart attacks before age 50.' End of discussion,"
recalls Rench, who switched doctors after that.
"We need to do better at recognizing and treating risk factors in women,"
says Erin Donnelly Michos, MD, MHS, assistant professor of medicine in the
cardiology division of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore.
Consider this: Studies have shown that men have their cholesterol checked
more frequently and treated more aggressively than women. Men are also more
likely to control their high blood pressure, and to get aspirin, beta blockers,
and cholesterol-lowering statin drugs if they have a heart attack.
So far, data don't show that women are at greater risk than men
for heart disease. "But if we don't take care of the problem, women will
be showing up with higher blood pressure and higher cholesterol levels -- and
higher heart attacks rates -- than men," Daviglus says.
If that frightening prospect sounds familiar, it's because we’ve seen it
before -- with lung cancer. For years, lung cancer was more common in men than
in women. But as more women started smoking, their lung cancer rates rose,
narrowing that gap.