February 16, 2021
During Heart Health Month, we want to encourage women to take care of their hearts for themselves and their loved ones. Heart disease is the leading cause of death among women in the United States. To learn more about this very important health condition, the FDA Office of Women’s Health (OWH) interviewed, Dr. Rupa Sanghani, the featured speaker for our upcoming OWH Scientific Speaker Series Lecture, Sex Differences in Ischemic Heart Disease: Pathophysiology, Presentation, and Diagnosis.
The views expressed are those of Dr. Sanghani and do not necessarily reflect opinions, views, or official policy of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Women’s Health.
Why do women need to focus on heart health?
Every woman is at risk for heart disease over the course of their lifetime and heart disease is the #1 cause of death in women in the United States. Although women typically do not develop heart disease until they are over 60 years of age, it can affect women in any age group, and we are seeing more women present in their younger years. Women are also underdiagnosed, undertreated, and have worse outcomes, so we need to be aware of our risk and advocate for ourselves.
At what age should women act to reduce their risk of heart disease? What steps should they take?
As women of every age are at risk, I recommend early screening for risk factors. This includes regular blood pressure checks, regular cholesterol level checks, screening for diabetes and other risk factors with your primary care physician or healthcare provider. I also encourage women find out if they have a family history of early onset heart disease, very high cholesterol or sudden cardiac death. Lastly, pregnancy can often “unmask” heart disease, so any woman with any type of hypertension problem during pregnancy, preeclampsia or gestational diabetes should be screened regularly after childbirth.
If an individual had preeclampsia during a pregnancy, are there any special steps they should take post-pregnancy?
Preeclampsia is the development of hypertension (high blood pressure) and protein loss in the urine during pregnancy. Any hypertension problem during pregnancy is a risk factor for developing future hypertension. A woman with preeclampsia has double the risk of developing stroke, heart damage or blood clots and four times the risk of developing hypertension over their lifetime. This often occurs within 10 years of the pregnancy, so getting your blood pressure checked regularly is very important. In addition, any subsequent pregnancies will be higher risk, so it’s important to avoid future pregnancy until you’ve discussed your plans with your doctor.
What are the signs of a heart attack in women?
The traditional description of angina is substernal chest pain or pressure that is worse with exertion and improves with rest. In an actual heart attack, this can manifest as chest pain or pressure, shortness of breath, neck/jaw pain, extreme fatigue, severe nausea or vomiting. If something doesn’t feel right, or you feel that you just can’t do what you normally do, then you should take that seriously and make your doctor aware and/ or call 9-1-1.
How can all women protect themselves from developing heart disease?
The best way to protect yourself from heart disease is to start early in life with good habits and a healthy lifestyle. That includes moderate exercise three to four times a week, eating healthy, avoiding tobacco, keeping your weight down, and managing stress. A heart healthy diet is low in saturated fat and sugar and high in fiber, fruits and vegetables. Embracing a plant-based diet as much as possible is a great place to start. Discussing your individual risk factors with your doctor and getting regular checkups are also very important.
For more information on Heart Health, please visit www.fda.gov/womenshearthealth.
Dr. Sanghani is an Associate Professor at Rush Medical College and Rush University Medical Center. She is also the Vice Chief of Clinical Operations for Cardiology, Director of Nuclear Cardiology and the Stress Laboratory, Director of the Cardiology Consult Service, and the Associate Director for the Rush Heart Center for Women. Dr. Sanghani is board certified in Internal Medicine, Cardiology, Nuclear Cardiology, and Echocardiography. She is a fellow and member of the American College of Cardiology and the American Society of Nuclear Cardiology.