It’s the leading cause of death among women in the United States and kills nearly twice as many women as all forms of cancer combined. Yet many women are not familiar with the symptoms of heart disease.
The two cardiologists at the Scripps Women’s Heart Center at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla urge women not to dismiss symptoms such as fatigue, dizziness, neck or jaw pain and indigestion, because they could signal the onset of a heart attack.
“Listen to your woman’s intuition,” says Dr. Adams, an integrative cardiologist who is an expert in women’s heart disease. “If it’s something new that feels scary and unusual don’t blow it off. Call 911 or go to the emergency room. Have someone drive you there.”
Dr. Adams emphasizes prevention of cardiovascular disease and urges women to get to know their risk factors.
“The first thing we always tell women is know your numbers so we can get a baseline. What’s your cholesterol level? Do you have diabetes? How’s your blood pressure? Is your weight normal? What’s your family history?” Dr. Adams said.
Dr. Uddin, an integrative cardiologist, promotes risk reduction through healthy lifestyle choices. She recommends exercising regularly as one way to monitor heart health.
“If you’re noticing a change in your exercise tolerance that can be a very early sign that we need to check you,” Dr. Uddin said.
While research has shown that the risk for heart problems among women tends to increase after menopause, the Scripps cardiologists encourage women to start paying attention to their hearts as early as possible.
“It’s never too soon and the reason is that you just want to get into those good habits of establishing a baseline with your physician or health care provider,” Dr. Uddin said.
“We focus a lot on heart disease but that doesn’t take into account all the other things that could possibly be going on in your cardiovascular system,” Dr. Uddin said. “Some of them are congenital. They can be there from birth. Some can develop in your 20s and 30s.”
Dr. Adams notes that pregnancy-related conditions such as pre-eclampsia can signal heart problems occurring much later.
“Even if those risk factors go away after the delivery of the child, this can increase your risk of coronary disease 20 to 30 years down the road,” Dr. Adams said.
While it is difficult to reverse heart disease once it occurs, it can be prevented with healthy lifestyle choices, including reducing stress in your life as much as possible.
“We’re talking about the daily stressors in life,” said Dr. Uddin, citing examples such as holding a demanding job or taking care of aging parents.
Stress may affect behaviors and factors that increase heart disease, such as high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, smoking, physical inactivity and overeating.
“We typically tend to take poor care of ourselves when we’re under stress,” Dr. Uddin pointed out. “Stress alone can be a problem if it keeps somebody from exercising or having a proper diet.”
Much research still needs to be done to better understand women and heart disease, which is why the work at the Scripps Women’s Heart Center is more important than ever, according to the two cardiologists.
“We offer the full spectrum of cardiac care. We really want to change the course of where this disease is going,” Dr. Adams said. “This is a highly preventable disease but it happens to be the number one killer of women in the United States,” she said.