The heart health guide
Woman holding heart

As if it weren't bad enough that our breasts try to kill us with cancer, we also have to face the fact that heart disease is the number one No. 1 cause of death among women today. And yes, I'm saying that to scare you.

This article could
save your life

According to Dr. Nieca Goldberg, the medical director at the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women's Health and veteran of New York Magazine's Best Doctors list since 2000, about 50,000 women under the age of 50 die of heart attacks every year. That's more than the roughly 40,000 yearly estimated deaths associated with breast cancer.

Further, InformedDNA, a health care website, states that one in three women die from heart disease each year, while only one in 36 women die of breast cancer each year. I know, we had a minor panic attack, too (which isn't good for your heart, so take a deep breath and do a couple yoga poses before you keep reading).

Despite these facts, many Americans still underestimate and overlook the severity of heart disease. A survey by the Cleveland Clinic revealed 74 percent of Americans don't fear heart disease, even if they knew someone affected by it. The same survey revealed that we're getting our heart health facts all wrong:

  • There is no gene that can determine your heart disease risk.
  • Fish oil is lying to us. To prevent heart disease by taking fish oil supplements, you would literally have to consume so much that you smelled like fish. Not to say that your fish oil isn't healthy, it's just not preventing heart disease.
  • The biggest source of sodium in your diet? Bread. Seventy-six percent of Americans did not know this. Well, now you know. Cut out bread.
  • Did you know that jaw pain can be a sign of heart disease? And don't forget more commonly known signs: unusual fatigue and sleep disturbances.

Read more: Heart attack symptoms in women >>

What is heart disease?

Heart disease includes heart attacks, strokes, heart failure, arrhythmia and heart valve problems, and can be defined by plaque buildup or by organ defects. To sum up, almost every heart condition or disease relates to the fact that your heart isn't pumping enough blood and your organs aren't getting enough blood from your heart. The longer this goes on, the greater your risk to be one of the 50,000 women who suffer a heart attack this year.

So if you haven't been taking you heart health as seriously as your breast health, it's time to start.

Dr. Goldberg, who is also a spokesperson for the American Heart Association's "Go Red" campaign, recommends every women start by asking her doctor these three questions:

Warning signs: Call 9-1-1 if...
  1. How do I assess my risk factors?
  2. What are my risk factors?
  3. Can we test my blood for cholesterol level and diabetes? (Both of these things can be associated with heart disease or heart failure.)

Heart attacks and cardiac arrest can be caused by an array of heart conditions that essentially mean your heart isn't effectively pumping blood. Some heart conditions women should be aware of are:


Arrhythmia

This condition is defined by what Dr. Goldberg calls rapid, skipped or fluttering heartbeats. In this case your heart is able to pump less blood into your body over a prolonged time, which can eventually lead to cardiac arrest or stroke.

Also, because your other organs may not be getting sufficient amounts of blood, you're at risk for lung failure and, ultimately, all other organs. Possible symptoms include lightheadedness, shortness of breath and chest pain.


Heart murmur

This refers directly to an abnormal sound around your heart, rather than an abnormal heartbeat. "[This] means a heart valve may be narrowed and leaky," said Dr. Goldberg. A leaky heart valve? A leaky transmission sounds pretty a lot better right about now, wouldn't you say?

According to the Mayo Clinic, a heart murmur can be harmless sound, but it can also be a symptom of a more serious heart condition. What's a girl to do? Talk with your doctor to see if you have any additional symptoms that would qualify your murmur as a mutter that matters.


Acute heart failure

According to a report from the American Heart Association, as a woman you have a 20 percent chance of acute heart failure at the age of 40. Even worse, research shows that quality of life takes a greater hit in women compared to men who have heart failure. Again, this happens when your heart isn't pumping enough blood. How does this different from chronic heart failure?

Well, it isn't much different. This is just heart failure with an extra word attached that means it often either happens as a result of previous heart failure diagnosis or is a sign of a larger heart failure diagnosis. Think of it as a really dangerous symptom that your heart isn't holding up. It can still reserve you a nice shiny bed in the hospital, and treatment and management of the condition are essentially the same.


Adult congenital heart disease

This is a heart defect that is present at birth, and can include a hole in the heart or misplaced or missing valves and chambers. According to Denise Curcio, a board member of the Adult Congenital Heart Association, there are 1.3 million adults living with these defects, and more than half of them are women. There are a total of 40 defects associated with this disease, and just as heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the U.S., this is the No. 1 birth defect in the U.S.

Unfortunately, not all states have legislation that requires doctors to screen newborns for these defects. If you have a baby on the way, visit this site to find out of your state is one of them. If you're an adult living with congenital heart disease and you're pregnant or want to be pregnant, make sure to choose a doctor that is familiar with the disease and meet with a cardiologist as well. Both doctors should be present throughout your pregnancy.

Now that you know how serious this is...

Use the rest of these pages as the stepping stone to a heart-healthier lifestyle. Seriously, these articles could save your life.

Photo credit: David O'Donnell/Photodisc/Getty Images

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