Listen to your heart

JUGGLING MANY ROLES Women are at a greater risk for heart diseases

JUGGLING MANY ROLES Women are at a greater risk for heart diseases  

More and more women are getting diagnosed with cardiovascular diseases. That's the new reality, says Hema Vijay

Put it down to the changing lifestyles of today's women — their exposure to professional stress, irregular food habits and other factors that augment heart disease; or to the fact that women are beginning to take their health seriously too, not just their family's and go for health check-ups. The new reality is more and more women, even in the reproductive age, are getting diagnosed with cardiovascular diseases. "The earlier belief was that women in the reproductive age group enjoyed a `female advantage' brought about by their hormones, which shielded them from heart disease," says Dr. K. Jaishankar, consultant cardiologist, Frontier Lifeline Hospital. World over, 16.6 million women die every year of cardiac diseases, and nearly twice as many die of heart disease and stroke as from all forms of cancer, including breast cancer.

Consult your cardiologist

Cardiologists have identified factors that put a woman at risk. . Some of these factors are modifiable such as negative response to stress, physical inactivity, cholesterol levels, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, smoking and excessive alcohol intake. Others are non-modifiable such as age, family history (ancestors/close blood relatives having had heart disease) and genetic make up. "Diabetes is the strongest risk factor for causing heart attacks in women. When a woman becomes diabetic, because of the increased sugar level, she loses the female advantage conferred by her reproductive hormones, her protective HDL cholesterol goes down, and the detrimental LDL cholesterol and triglycerides go up. A female diabetic also runs a greater risk of having a heart attack than a male diabetic," warns Dr. Jaishankar. Another factor to watch out for is polycystic ovaries, which is commonly observed in women with heart disease. Not just smokers, women exposed to second-hand smoke (passive smokers) too carry the risk of developing heart disease and stroke. Overweight women, especially around the waist region, carry a greater risk for high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, high triglycerides, diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Some cardiologists also believe that women who've had a heart attack (either a major one or even the mini-stroke or the transient ischaemic stroke) run a high risk of having a second heart attack, within a year."High blood pressure is a silent killer and it should be suspected when there are unprovoked headaches, giddiness or vertigo, sleeplessness, stressed out feeling and calf pain," says Dr. Jaishankar. Chest pain in the centre or left side of the heart, a radiation of that pain to the jaw, shoulders and down the left arm accompanied by profuse sweating are signs of blockage in the blood flow in the heart and maybe an indication of an impending heart attack.

Pregnancy and menopause

Some women develop high blood pressure during their pregnancy called gestational hypertension. "In some pregnant women, gestational hypertension can harm the mother's kidneys and other organs, induce premature delivery and result in low birth weight of the infant," says cardiologist Dr. Latha Sampath. In extreme cases, it can threaten the lives of both the mother and the foetus or cause foetal complications. This apart, women with chronic high blood pressure too can develop certain complications during pregnancy. Some women also develop postpartum cardio-myopathy — their heart muscles become inexplicably weaker after delivering a baby. Women who have had gestational diabetes too need to be monitored as they are likely to develop diabetes later on. Then, menopause is when women need to raise their guard further. "With the onset of menopause, women lose the protective influence of their reproductive hormones, the bad cholesterol level goes up, the good cholesterol level comes down, and with age, more cholesterol tends to get deposited in the blood vessels, which increases the risk factor," says Dr. K. Jayanthi, consultant cardiologist, Apollo Hospitals. "Hormone replacement therapy is not recommended as it can create more trouble like cancer of the breast," she says.There are still women who don't even recognise that they are suffering an attack. In a study conducted in the U.S., researchers discovered that only 30 per cent of the women who had heart attacks recognised the chest pain preceding the attack. Most of them had described it as aching, tightness and pressure, rather than pain. "I had nausea and dizziness, and my physician treated me for spondylitis and vertigo initially, but the symptoms persisted until finally a specialist checked my blood pressure and found it to be 160 /110," says K. Geetha. The bottom line is, women need to listen to their heart more and strategise to ward off heart disease.

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