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Taking Care of Your Heart: Why Women Need to Pay Attention

Heart Health
Author name: Lee Health


women's heart health photo

Heart disease is often seen as a "man's disease," but it's actually the leading cause of death for both women and men in the United States. However, women face unique risk factors and challenges when it comes to diagnosing and treating heart disease.

Dr. Malissa Wood, Chief Physician Executive at the Lee Health Heart Institute, discusses why women should understand their unique risk factors and how a healthy lifestyle can prevent heart disease.

Why women differ from men

Women and men share many risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, lack of exercise, and obesity.

However, women also face unique risks like complications during pregnancy, early onset menopause and autoimmune diseases. 

“Understanding those nuances between men and women and addressing them is part of what the Lee Health Heart Institute specialists are here to do,” Dr. Wood says.

WATCH: Meet Dr. Malissa Wood

For example, she says that although men and women both experience chest pain when they present with a heart attack, women are more likely also to have associated symptoms, including palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness and neck/arm discomfort. Symptoms in women are also less obvious; thus, women are more likely to ignore their symptoms. 

“Women may experience shortness of breath, nausea, back pain, or fatigue in the weeks leading up to a heart attack,” Dr. Wood explains. “These signs are subtle, which can lead to women not realizing what’s happening and delay necessary treatment.”

Only about half (56 percent) of U.S. women recognize that heart disease is their number 1 killer, according to the American Heart Association

Protect your heart health 

The good news is that 80 percent of cardiac events can be prevented through lifestyle changes. 

“A healthy lifestyle can go a long way towards reducing your risk,” Dr. Wood says. Her recommendations for staying proactive about your heart health include:

  • Exercising regularly - aim for 150 minutes per week of moderate activity like walking.
  • Managing conditions such as: 
    • Cholesterol – talk with your doctor about checking your cholesterol and triglyceride levels. “High cholesterol has no signs or symptoms,” Dr. Wood says. “Elevated cholesterol increases your risk for heart disease and stroke.” 
    • Diabetes – Having uncontrolled diabetes raises your risk of heart disease. Talk with your doctor about whether you should be tested for diabetes. 
    • High blood pressure (hypertension). “We know hypertension or high blood pressure is the  silent killer,” Dr. Wood notes. “People don't have symptoms unless their blood pressure is dangerously high. Check your blood pressure often if you’re at risk or smoke.”
  • Practicing good sleep habits. “Sleep is an under-appreciated risk factor for high blood pressure and other health conditions,” Dr. Wood says. “Check in with your doctor if you do have a sleep disorder because you may have sleep apnea or other conditions that can increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.”
  • Managing your stress levels by finding healthy ways to cope with stress.
  • Eating a balanced, nutritious diet high in fruits and vegetables.

Dr. Wood stresses the importance of regular check-ups to ensure that your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels are within healthy ranges. 

“Tracking your numbers over time is helpful for catching issues early,” she says. “Don't hesitate to bring up any concerning symptoms with your provider, even if they seem minor. The earlier heart disease can be addressed, the better the outcome.” 

Lee Health Heart Institute: Bringing cardiac care into the future

To improve outcomes for women, the Lee Health Heart Institute will continue to develop new programs to meet the needs of our growing community. 

These include Women’s Heart Health and Cardio-Obstetrics programs, according to Dr. Wood. She also cites ongoing advances in Lee Health’s Virtual Care options that bring healthcare services to people in remote settings or those who prefer to meet with their doctor from the comfort of their homes.

She says the Women’s Heart Health Program will care for adult women with cardiovascular conditions that are more common or occur only in women.

The program’s goal will be to facilitate access to behavioral health support, given the well-recognized impact of anxiety and depression on a woman’s heart disease prognosis. 

“Women who have a history of depression or anxiety have a much worse prognosis after they experience a heart attack than do men who have the same issues,” Dr. Wood notes.

“We’re recognizing the vital link between anxiety, depression, and overall behavioral health and cardiac outcomes by incorporating behavioral health strategies into the Women's Heart Health Program.”

The Cardio-Obstetrics program will work in collaboration with obstetrics and maternal-fetal medicine colleagues to manage women with or at risk for heart disease during pregnancy. 

“During pregnancy, women are already feeling tired and may have symptoms they did not experience prior to pregnancy,” she says. “If a woman experiences new onset symptoms during pregnancy, it is important that they see their clinician to determine whether further testing is required.”

She adds, “If a woman has a history of a cardiac problem becomes pregnant, we work very closely with her to develop a plan for that pregnancy.”

Dr. Wood cites the growing use of Lee Health’s virtual care programs for delivering quality care to remote settings where patients may have challenges accessing care.

“We know that healthcare is moving from the hospital to the clinic to the patient's home,” she explains.

“Innovations such as remote monitoring, virtual visits, and online education groups allow patients to get individualized treatment right at home, especially in remote patient settings,” Dr. Wood says.

“By tracking detailed physiological data from patients daily, doctors can adjust medications and catch issues early without an in-clinic visit.”

The future of women’s heart health lies in prevention through healthy lifestyles and innovations to diagnose and manage cardiac risks early. Understanding the unique aspects of women’s heart health issues alongside remote care technology can help more women thrive long-term. 

“There is enormous potential to reduce the burden of heart disease through specialized women’s cardiac programs like those under development at Lee Health Heart Institute,” Dr. Wood says.

WATCH: Dr. Wood discusses how cardiovascular risk factors differ between men and women

The Largest Heart Program in Southwest Florida

The Lee Health Heart Institute has an alliance with Cleveland Clinic’s Heart, Vascular & Thoracic Institute, the nation’s leader in heart care. Our heart institute includes primary and specialty care, nationally ranked hospitals, Shipley Cardiothoracic Center, cardiac rehabilitation, and more.

HealthPark Medical Center has been recognized as a PINC AI Fortune 50 Top Cardiology Hospital in the country - and 1 of only 4 hospitals recognized in Florida. 

Find a Lee Health cardiologist expert here.

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