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Heart disease remains the leading cause of death for women in the U.S., accounting for about 1 in every 3 female deaths when combined with stroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The organization goes on to say that it is the #1 killer of both African American and White women in this country, while it is either tied with, or second to, cancer for female fatalities in other ethnicities.
These are alarming statistics, made even more so when one considers the CDC’s noting that only 56% of women recognize that heart disease is their leading cause of death.
As February is American Heart Month, we should all take a moment to consider what can help women avoid contracting this terrible disease.
Although traditional gender roles no longer hold true in many households, I still see a general disparity in the patients I see. A lot of women bring their husbands in when they show signs of heart trouble; when I ask them how they themselves are doing, the women usually respond, “Oh, I’m fine.” That may well be the case, but putting off regular examinations in favor of other family members’ is never a good idea.
Many women still put themselves last when it comes to taking care of health, putting children, spouses, and their own parents ahead of themselves; as a result, they don’t come in as frequently as they should for checkups. Basic blood tests for the likes of cholesterol and diabetes can catch developing conditions early, and an annual visit with your primary care physician is a must.
One thing that many people dismiss is the simple fact that, unfortunately, COVID-19 is still with us. I see a lot of patients with long COVID who are experiencing chest pain and heart palpitations two or more years since their initial infection. The full impact of COVID-19 on the heart is still being studied, but we know it can cause severe inflammation, raising your risk of blood clots. The bivalent booster is safe and effective, and I strongly advise my patients to stay up to date with their vaccines.
In addition, the pandemic created a mess in people’s schedules, some of which have yet to be corrected. Regular exercise fell by the wayside, accompanied by an increase in unhealthy eating and drug and alcohol use, among other factors.
In fact, the #1 heart health mistake people make remains smoking tobacco, as well as marijuana, now that it has been legalized in so many states, including New York. While the potential effects on the heart of smoking marijuana are still being determined, some studies have suggested that the activity can increase one’s risk of heart disease and heart attack.
Good nutrition, not surprisingly, can play an important role in the fight against heart disease as well. A plant-based diet (like many physicians, I recommend the Mediterranean diet) can lower the risk of heart disease and stroke by as much as 25% – the same effect that cholesterol medicine can have.
A family history of heart disease is also an indicator that you yourself may develop (or already have) the condition. If you have such a family history, be sure to discuss it with your primary care physician and/or cardiologist.
Indeed, such healthcare providers can go into more depth with you about ways to avoid developing heart disease, as well as how to properly treat it. Bringing the number of cases and fatalities down – in women, and in all of us – should be a goal for everyone.
Dr. Shalini Bobra is a cardiologist with White Plains Hospital Physician Associates, seeing patients at 99 Business Park Drive in Armonk. To make an appointment, call 914-849-7900.
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