Women’s Heart Health}

Women’s Heart Health


Richard Helfant, MD

Most women know that heart disease is the number-one killer in the United States–of men. Most women also realize the value of eating healthy food, exercising, and decreasing stress–for their families and loved ones. Information is abundant and readily available in books, newspapers and magazines, and on television and radio about the risk of cardiovascular disease in men.

But the widespread belief that heart disease is exclusively a man’s problem is a myth. Women–and most physicians–are not aware that cardiovascular disease is the number one-killer of women as well as men. The facts speak for themselves: Of the 520,000 people who die of heart attacks in the United States each year, almost half–about 250,000–are women In addition, almost 100,000 women die of strokes. Substantially fewer women die annually from breast cancer (40,500) or lung cancer (41,500). Overall, heart and vascular diseases claim more American women’s lives than do all forms of cancer combined.

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Moreover, many of the factors that determine the risk of heart disease for women differ from those for men. Dr. William Castelli, a leading authority on heart disease and director of the Framingham Heart Study, which has done research on heart disease risk factors for forty years, has referred to these unique risks for women as a “whole new syndrome” associated with a “galloping progression of atherosclerosis.

Women are largely unaware of the effects of estrogen, birth control pills, and cigarettes and few know that if they smoke and take birth control pills, they have about forty times more chance of heart disease than women who do not. Women above age thirty-five are particularly at risk. It is vital to understand the factors favoring heart disease, because they may be avoidable or modifiable. In fact, according to Dr. Dean Ornish, women may have to do less than men to affect their outlook positively. In a study he conducted evaluating the effect of life-style changes in reversing heart disease, women responded better than men, even when women did less to restrict their diets, exercise, or reduce stress. By understanding their risks and ways to minimize them, women can lessen the chances of being victims of what the American Heart Association has called “the silent epidemic.”

The purpose of developing and maintaining a healthy way of life for yourself as a woman is not only to decrease the risk of heart disease but also to fell well and feel good. Physical activity does not have to be strenuous to be beneficial. More women than ever are discovering that exercise in moderation is exhilirating. Healthy changes in eating do not have to be unduly restrictive. The food you eat can continue to be delicious and satisfying. By using simply new tools to maintain a healthy weight, you will decrease the chances of developing three big heart disease risks–diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol–and discover a renewed sense of self at the same time.

By taking control of your health, you will be more able to take control of other aspects of your life. In so doing, you will achieve a greater sense of well-being, which is the true meaning of health. This is a marvelous opportunity for you personally. In addition, your new healthy living habits can be a model for family and friends. You thus may make a significant difference in their lives and health as well as your own. In the words of Hillel: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? If not now, when?”Richard Helfant, MD

, is a Harvard-trained cardiologist and developer of cardiac technologies. His book

Courageous Confrontations

, is about how the mind-body relationship can combat

heart disease


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