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Women at Greater Risk of Heart Disease

  • Carol Pearson

Heart disease is the number one killer in the world, and it is mostly preventable. But reducing deaths from heart disease will require changes in lifestyle and public policy, and better public awareness programs. Women are at greater risk from heart disease than men. That's partly because it's harder to diagnose in women.

When a man has a heart attack, it is often because of a blocked artery. An x-ray of blood vessels, an angiogram, can usually spot a blockage caused by a buildup of plaque. It involves threading a thin tube into a patient's arteries.

But angiograms don't always spot problems in women's arteries. That puts women at greater risk for a heart attack. The World Health Organization reports that heart disease claims the lives of 18 million women a year. And it's a disease that doesn't just impact older women. Carrie Vincent had a massive heart attack after giving birth to her first child. "My God, I was 31 years old..31 year olds don't have heart attacks," she said.

Vincent is now taking her message to women in their homes. Irene Pollin went into action when she learned this fact. "Heart disease is the number one killer of women," she said.

Pollin founded Sister to Sister, an organization to educate women about heart disease. She encourages women to learn about their blood pressure, cholesterol levels and other risk factors for heart disease. "The goal is really prevention, having people understand their risk, that they should try to get screened, know their numbers and then do something about it," she said.

Pollin teamed up with a cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, where Dr. Joanne Foody focuses on prevention. "The good news is that we know that 95 percent of heart disease is preventable by reducing risk," she said.

That means becoming or remaining a non-smoker, controlling or avoiding diabetes, maintaining a healthy weight, eating the right foods, exercising 30 minutes most days and managing or reducing stress.

Heart disease increasingly affects women in developing countries. Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian places a lot of blame on the global obesity epidemic. "People are getting chronic diseases by not eating too much, but by eating poorly. What they're not eating is mostly what's harming them," he said.

Dr. Mozaffarian recommends increasing our intake of fish, whole grains, vegetables, vegetable oils and nuts and decreasing the amount of salt and transfats in our diets

Both doctors recommend public policies that promote heart health, and, of course, screening and education, the type that Irene Pollin and Carrie Vincent are doing one event at a time.

Heart disease is the number one killer in the world, and it is mostly preventable. But reducing deaths from heart disease will require changes in lifestyle and public policy, and better public awareness programs. Women are at greater risk from heart disease than men. That's partly because it's harder to diagnose in women. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on efforts to lower those risks and help women avoid heart disease.
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