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Women are six times more likely to die from heart disease than from breast cancer

Omar Wani, M.D.

Heart disease often is thought to be a condition more related to men than women, however; just the opposite is true – more women than men die of heart disease each year. Women are six times more likely to die of heart disease as of breast cancer. Heart disease kills more women age 65 years and older than all cancers combined. 

While heart disease is the leading cause of death for women age 65 years and older, it's the third-leading cause of death for women age 25 to 44 years and the second-leading cause of death for women age 45 to 64 years. Women under the age of 65 years who have a family history of heart disease should pay particularly close attention to the heart disease risk factors. Still, all women, of all ages, should take heart disease seriously.

Although the traditional risk factors for coronary artery disease, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and obesity, affect women and men, other factors may play a bigger role in the development of heart disease in women. For example:

Metabolic syndrome — a combination of fat around your abdomen and high blood pressure, blood sugar and triglycerides — has a greater impact on women than on men.
Mental stress and depression affect women's hearts more than men's.
Smoking is a greater risk factor for heart disease in women than in men.
Low levels of estrogen after menopause pose a significant risk factor for developing cardiovascular disease in the smaller blood vessels (small vessel heart disease).

There are several lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your risk of heart disease:

Maintain a healthy weight.
Quit or don't start smoking.
Eat a diet that's low in saturated fat, cholesterol and salt. 
Add more Omega-3 fatty acids into your diet.
Exercise 30 to 60 minutes a day most days of the week.
(If you can't get all of your exercise completed in one session, do several 10- to 15-minute sessions to get the same heart-health benefits.)

What's considered a healthy weight varies from person to person, but having a normal body mass index (BMI) is helpful. The BMI calculation lets you know if you have a healthy or unhealthy percentage of body fat. A BMI of 25 or higher can be associated with an increased risk of heart disease. Losing just 10 to 15 pounds can help by lowering blood pressure and helping to prevent diabetes, both of which increase the risk of heart disease.

It also is important to take prescribed medications and aspirin appropriately. In women, aspirin therapy seems to reduce the risk of stroke more than in men, while in men it reduces the risk of heart attack more than it reduces stroke. Guidelines recommend women consider taking aspirin. Have a discussion with your doctor about the risks and benefits of taking. 

All women face the threat of heart disease. But becoming aware of symptoms and risks unique to women, as well as eating a heart-healthy diet and exercising, can help protect you.

 Omar Wani, M.D., interventional cardiologist, is a physician at the Heart & Vascular Center of Northern Arizona. Dr. Wani specializes in all aspects of interventional cardiac and vascular medicine, with a special interest in women’s heart disease.