(BPT) – A popular social media meme holds that “growing old isn’t for sissies.” Plenty of older women would probably agree with that sentiment as they cope with age-related issues specific to their gender, such as osteoporosis and increased risk of breast cancer. Yet the greatest health risk women face as they age is one society most often thinks of as predominantly affecting men: heart disease.
“Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States,” notes Dr. Kevin O’Neil, chief medical officer for Brookdale, a leading senior living company that operates approximately 1,150 communities in 46 states. “Maybe one out of every 25 women may die of breast cancer, but one out of every two women will die from heart disease or stroke.”
Heart disease takes many forms, O’Neil says, with coronary artery disease being the most prevalent. Plaque builds up in the arteries, constricting and sometimes blocking the flow of blood to the heart. This can damage the heart muscle over time and even contribute to a heart attack if a blockage occurs.
Many risk factors for heart disease are particularly relevant to women. Because the onset of heart disease in women typically occurs a decade or more after men, many women may assume they’re safe. Yet other bodily and environmental changes related to aging can increase the risk, even among women who appear healthy.
Risk factors of particular concern to women include:
* Decreased estrogen after menopause – “Estrogen appears to have a protective effect” for heart health, O’Neil says. As estrogen levels fall, the risk of heart disease can increase.
* Inactivity – Mobility and balance issues may make it difficult for senior women to maintain a healthy level of activity.
* High blood pressure – As people age, blood pressure naturally increases. Uncontrolled high blood pressure is a significant risk factor for heart disease.
* According to the Mayo Clinic, diabetes also increases heart disease risk more for women than men. “Physicians recognize that diabetics are at much higher risk of coronary artery and vascular disease,” O’Neil says. “Recent recommendations suggest statin therapy, even in diabetics with a normal cholesterol level, as statin medications have benefits above and beyond cholesterol-lowering.”
Symptoms of heart disease and especially heart attack can be very different for women than for men, O’Neil says. “Heart disease symptoms in women are often what we refer to as ‘atypical presentation.’ They may or may not experience pain, but may instead feel short of breath, nauseated or fatigued,” he says. “Often, we hear heart attack symptoms described as a feeling of pressure instead of pain. Certainly any severe and persistent symptoms should prompt you to call 911.”
In fact, women are more likely than men to experience symptoms such as indigestion, heartburn, nausea and vomiting, breathing problems, dizziness or light-headedness, or extreme fatigue, the Mayo Clinic says.
When heart disease leads to damage to the heart and/or heart attack, the damage can be severe and irreversible, O’Neil says. “We know that 25 percent of people who have a heart attack, it’s their first and their last. And 75 percent of women who experience a stroke or heart attack will not be able to return to their previous lifestyle. That’s why we place such an emphasis on prevention. It’s better to prevent the problem from ever occurring.”
Even if you have mobility and balance issues or other health problems, it is still possible to significantly reduce your risk of heart disease, O’Neil says.
* If you smoke, quit. Smoking significantly increases your risks of heart disease and stroke, and quitting delivers immediate benefits – even if you’ve smoked for years.
* Get active – at least 30 minutes of exercise daily. “Even if you’ve never been active before or you have problems that make traditional forms of exercise difficult, you can still improve your activity levels,” O’Neil says. Women with balance and mobility issues may benefit from upper-body aerobics, swimming or other pool therapies. Walking, balance training, tai chi, yoga and even dancing can be helpful, offering benefits for both the body and brain. “I always tell my patients, find something you’re going to enjoy and put some variety into your exercise.”
* Monitor and control your blood pressure. Women whose blood pressure has historically been good may need only to get it checked once a year. Anyone who’s being treated for high blood pressure should be monitored more regularly by a health care provider, having their blood pressure checked at least every few months.
* Stay connected. “Depression increases heart disease risks,” O’Neil notes. Staying in touch with loved ones can help combat depression and stimulate brain health.