You may be familiar with the “Go Red for Women” campaign, or at least, the “red dress” as a symbol. The Go Red for Women initiative was started in 2003 by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), the American Heart Association, and other organizations committed to women’s health. The goal? To increase the awareness of women and heart disease.
For a long time, the occurrence of heart disease has been primarily associated with men, in part because research has studied heart disease and stroke mostly in men; and, from research comes treatment guidelines and programs. Unfortunately, these treatment guidelines aren’t always applicable to women.
The Go Red for Women activities support research on heart health in women, which, in turn, helps create tools and guidelines for health care providers to prevent and treat heart disease in women.
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Heart disease and women with diabetes
Why the focus on women? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shares some troubling facts about how heart disease affects women:
- Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women in the U.S. (about one in every five female deaths).
- About one in 16 white, Black, and Hispanic women and about one in 30 Asian women age 20 and older have coronary heart disease, the most common type of heart disease.
In addition, almost 15 million women age 18 and older have diabetes. People with diabetes are more than twice as likely to have heart disease or a stroke than people who don’t have diabetes, and the risk goes up the longer a person has diabetes. In fact, women who have diabetes are three to four times more likely to develop heart disease than women without diabetes. Also, women with diabetes get heart disease earlier in life — at about the same age as when men tend to get heart disease (in their 40s and 50s). To make matters worse, women with diabetes are more likely to have fatal heart attacks than men with diabetes. Having diabetes can also double the risk for a second heart attack
Why is heart disease risk higher in women with diabetes?
There are a number of reasons why women with diabetes are more likely to develop heart disease than men with diabetes, and more likely to have worse outcomes.
Heart disease prevention and treatment has traditionally not been the same for women as for men. Clinical trials, access to health care, issues with health care providers, and lack of education about heart disease have been different for women. Thanks to campaigns such as Go Red for Women, there’s more awareness around the unique needs of and differences in women.
A study in the March 6, 2021, issue of the Journal of the American Heart Association found that women who had more weight around their midsection (measured by waist circumference, waist-to-hip ratio, or waist-to-height ratio) had a 10% to 20% great risk of heart attack than women who were heavier, overall. Having a larger waist-to-hip ratio is a bigger heart attack risk factor for women than for men. Too much belly fat can increase blood pressure, raise cholesterol levels, and make it harder to manage blood sugar levels.
Heart attack symptoms
Women may have different symptoms of a heart attack than men. For example, many women don’t have the typical crushing chest pain that men have (although chest pain is still the most common symptom for women). Feeling extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, fainting, or pressure or pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen are symptoms that women may have during a heart attack. Because these symptoms are much less subtle than chest pain, women may not promptly seek treatment.
Women who smoke are at greater risk for a heart attack than men. Also, women struggle more than men with quitting smoking.
Stress and depression are more likely to harm women’s hearts than men’s hearts.
Birth control pills
Taking birth control pills may increase the risk of heart disease by increasing blood pressure and blood sugar and increasing the risk of blood clots.
Excessive alcohol intake can raise the risk of high blood pressure, stroke, and heart failure. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, women develop alcohol-related problems sooner and at lower drinking levels than men.
A lack of or not enough physical activity is a major risk factor for heart disease for both women and men. In general, women tend to be less physically active than men.
Heart attack symptoms
It never hurts to be reminded of the symptoms of a heart attack, per the Go Red for Women campaign:
- Pain, fullness, pressure, or squeezing in the center of your chest, lasting for more than a few minutes or that goes away and comes back.
- Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaws, or stomach.
- Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
- Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or lightheadedness.
Call 911 or get to the hospital right away if these symptoms occur.
Lowering your risk of heart disease
Reading about heart disease and symptoms of a heart attack can be scary and may make you feel that having heart disease is inevitable. But it’s not! There are a lot of steps that you can take to help you lower your risk and live a healthier life, overall. Here’s what you can do:
Know your numbers.
Along with your blood sugar and A1C levels, keep tabs on your blood pressure, your cholesterol, and your body-mass index (BMI). Contact your health care provider if you aren’t sure what your numbers should be or what your goals are.
Be aware of symptoms.
Certainly, if you experience any of the heart attack symptoms listed above, seek medical attention right away. If you are feeling more tired than usual, aren’t sleeping well, have indigestion, have anxiety, or have a racing heart, don’t hesitate to let your provider know.
If you smoke, make a plan to quit.
Quitting smoking can be hard but don’t give up! Review your options for how to quit with your provider or visit https://smokefree.gov for tips and resources.
Be more active.
It’s never too late to get started with being active, even if you haven’t been active for a long time. Start out slowly and then aim to build up to 30 minutes, most days of the week. Read more on how to be successful with being active.
Aim for a healthy weight.
The goal for a healthy weight doesn’t mean you need to strive to be thin. Rather, losing between 5% and 10% of your weight will help you lower your blood pressure and blood sugars and improve your cholesterol. Tracking your weight and your food intake, keeping an eye on portions, and swapping in healthy foods for less healthy foods are effective ways to help you lose weight and keep it off.
It’s not always easy to reduce stress but it’s sure worthwhile trying. And luckily, there are some quick and easy techniques that you can use to stop stress in its tracks! Read more here.
Depression can lead to a number of health effects on the body, including a higher heart disease risk. Seek treatment for depression with a qualified health care professional (your primary care provider can give you a referral). In addition, fit activity, stress reduction, healthy eating, and enough sleep into your daily routine to give your mental health a boost.
Take medicines as prescribed.
You might be taking medicines for your diabetes, blood pressure, cholesterol, and depression. While it can seem like a lot of pills to take, remember that these medicines help to get and keep your “numbers” at goal, and also help manage physical and emotional symptoms, as well. Not sure you need all of these medicines? Talk with your provider. It’s always a good idea to review all of the medicines that you take; you might be able to reduce the amount or change what you are taking.
Go easy with alcohol.
Make sure alcohol is safe for you to drink. If you get the green light from your provider, stick with the guideline of no more than one drink daily, which means 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1 1/2 ounces of distilled spirits, such as vodka, gin or rum.
To learn more about Go Red for Women (including how you can get involved), visit the Go Red for Women website.
Want to learn more about protecting your heart? Read “Be Heart Smart: Know Your Numbers,” “Does Diabetes Hurt Your Heart?” “Fight Off Heart Disease With These Five Heart-Healthy Foods” and “Lower Your Risk of Heart Disease.”