Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women, and each year more women than men die from heart and cardiovascular disease without ever realizing they are at risk.
"After having a heart attack, a woman's chance of not surviving the first year or having another heart attack is greater than a man's," says University of Alabama at Birmingham cardiologist Alan Gertler, M.D. Preventing a heart attack, he says, is a critical objective.
Gertler says all women are at risk for heart disease, and the risk rises substantially as they age. "The incidence of heart disease among women overtakes men when they reach their late 50s, usually about five to 10 years after menopause," he says.
Gertler says one reason could be that biological changes tied to menopause may cause a dip in good cholesterol, predisposing them to clogged arteries. And though hormone-replacement therapy can reduce the symptoms of menopause, he says studies have produced differing results about whether or not it is beneficial for a woman's heart.
Post-menopausal women are more likely than men to be obese and have diabetes that may contribute, too. "The primary risk factors, such as smoking, hypertension, diabetes, abnormal cholesterol or elevated triglycerides, hold true in women as they do in men," Gertler says. "However, we believe that diabetes and the metabolic syndrome tend to be more of an issue for women than men and account for the increasing number of women with heart disease."
For optimum heart health, Gertler advises women of all ages to know their risk factors and change the ones they can.
According to the American Heart Association:
- More than one in three female adults has some form of cardiovascular disease
- 64 percent of women who died suddenly of heart disease had no previous symptoms
- 23 percent of women ages 40 and older who have a heart attack die within a year; only 18 percent of men suffer the same fate