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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.

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