A woman holds her hands together to form a heart.
Women, especially, need to understand heart disease and learn how to prevent heart attacks. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Heart disease—it’s real and it affects one-third of all women.

Did you know that it also happens to be the No. 1 killer of women and causes 17.5 million deaths per year? That’s the bad news.

The good news is that heart disease is preventable, or at least it can be delayed by many years. Heart attacks do not have to happen at such an alarming rate; in fact, they shouldn’t even happen at all.

Heart rehabilitation, lifestyle changes and medications can save lives by preventing heart attacks.

Richard McNamara, MD, a Spectrum Health cardiologist, believes that medications help many people avoid heart attacks. I like his thinking when he says, “People with high cholesterol do not have to take a statin, they get to take a statin. Treatment has advanced from years ago when there was no treatment and people became ‘heart cripples.’”

In order to understand how to avoid heart disease, you need to understand how it occurs. Heart disease refers to blockages of the arteries around the heart over a period of time. When the blockage becomes large enough, it keeps blood from getting to areas of heart muscle; therefore, the muscle dies and the heart might lose too much strength. As a result, it is not able to pump blood to the brain and body.

The development of plaque, or blocked area, begins many years before the plaque is large enough to cause a heart attack or stroke. Plaque development starts in many people as early as the teen years and may continue to progress, depending on their lifestyle factors. Choosing to eat foods high in sugar can cause the walls of the blood vessels to become sticky, speeding up plaque formation. Of course, other lifestyle choices can also contribute to heart attacks, which can cause death, severe illness, or disability in far too many people, especially women.

Menopause is a time in our life when risk factors for many issues (including heart attack and stroke) increase rapidly. Therefore, hot flashes are a sign that it is time to discover what risk factors you might have for having a heart attack or stroke—before it’s too late.

Regardless of your age, there are always steps you can take to reduce your chances, but late perimenopause and early menopause are times when just a little effort can make a big difference. The longer you wait, the more effort it takes to make any difference in your overall health.

Let’s look at the major risk factors that you cannot control: heredity, race, age and menopause. For example, 45 percent of black women have heart disease by age 20, and more hispanic women than white women have heart disease. Yikes!

Now, let’s look at the major risk factors that you can control: smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity and inactivity. Unfortunately, too many women have at least one (or more) of these risk factors, making them much more likely to experience a heart attack or stroke at some point in their lives.

Another major concern for women is that they often disregard the symptoms of heart disease. They are busy with their daily lives and unaware of the signs they may be overlooking. Common symptoms include progressive fatigue, exercise intolerance (unable to finish a normal workout), back pain, nausea, pain in the left shoulder, and shortness of breath up to two weeks before experiencing a heart attack.

It’s also important to know there are two types of heart disease that occur more in women than men. Coronary microvascular heart disease occurs when there is a blockage in the tiny arteries in the heart muscle before the blockage affects the larger arteries. Broken heart syndrome appears when severe emotional stress causes a spasm of the heart arteries and death of an area of heart muscle.

As you can see, women need to be aware of the risk factors, symptoms and various type of heart disease in order to lower our risk of having one at some point in our lives. Fortunately, the Spectrum Health Medical Group has many heart disease prevention services, including classes on nutrition, living a healthy lifestyle, and assessing for risk factors.