Myth: More American Women Will Die From Breast Cancer Than Heart Disease
Truth: Cardiovascular disease (heart attack and stroke) actually kills more American women yearly than breast cancer. Of the annual deaths of American women, one in 31 is from breast cancer, but one in three deaths is caused by heart disease. “Breast cancer is still a perceived higher risk but in fact it is not true,” says Michele Turek, MD, of the University of Ottawa Heart Institute.
Myth: Heart Disease Doesn’t Affect Women Until After Menopause
Truth: Women of all ages can be at risk for heart disease. While it’s true that symptoms and diagnoses seem more prevalent around the menopausal years when a natural reduction in estrogen and progesterone make the body more susceptible to cholesterol, higher body fat, and blood pressure problems, young women can also experience the condition.
Thankfully there are two opportunities in a woman’s life when she can increase her awareness of her heart disease risk. “The first is at the time of pregnancy,” says Dr. Turek. “Women who develop gestational diabetes or preeclampsia [two conditions that raise their risk for heart disease] can be targeted and perhaps embark on lifestyle changes that will make an impact on heart disease down the road. The second window is at the time of menopause when they’ll see their family doctor because of symptoms and this is a time when another discussion can be made.”
Myth: Heart Attack Symptoms Are the Same For Men and Women
Truth: “The classic symptoms (pain in the arm, jaw, throat or chest) are common in both men and women, but non-chest pain symptoms (fatigue, shortness of breath) are more likely to occur in women compared to men. These symptoms can occur in 38 percent of women compared to 27 percent of men,” says Dr. Turek. “And women, especially older women, tend to have their symptoms with emotion and stress, not exercise.”
Doctors have also found that women often attribute these symptoms to other causes (their age, or busy schedules juggling work and family) and don’t realize that it could be a heart attack. “If you have a change in your normal way of feeling especially with exercise or when you’re carrying on with your normal activities and you feel like you don’t have enough energy or breath, it could be signs of heart trouble,” she says. Pay attention to how you’re feeling; if unusual or strange symptoms occur, seek a physician’s advice immediately.
Myth: You can’t exercise if you have heart disease
Truth: Women with heart disease are actually encouraged to be physically active as exercise can prevent progression of the disease. But before you hit the gym, make sure your doctor has given you the all-clear. “Exercise should only be done after an assessment by a doctor,” says Dr. Turek. “If you’re on appropriate heart disease modifying medications, [your condition] can be managed and treated, and you can exercise.”
Myth: HRT Can Prevent Heart Disease
Truth: “If you’re going through menopause, hormone replacement therapy (HRT) doesn’t prevent heart disease,” says Dr. Turek. Both the Heart and Estrogen/Progestin Replacement Study (HERS) and the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) concluded that HRT doesn’t offer any reduction in heart disease risk, and it should only be used to manage hormonal menopausal systems. If you’re menopausal and wish to lower your heart disease risk factors, there are steps you can take: don’t smoke, maintain a normal weight, get moderate exercise, and enjoy a well-rounded healthy diet. “And if you have hypertension or diabetes [two conditions that can increase your heart disease risk], they can be treated with exercise, diet, and medications,” says Dr. Turek.
Myth: If You Have a Family History of Heart Disease, You Can’t Avoid Developing the Condition
Truth: “If you follow the risk factor guidelines for heart disease and stop smoking, eat a proper diet and get regular exercise, you could reduce your risk of dying from a heart attack by 82 percent,” says Dr. Turek. By adopting a healthy strategy, you can drastically reduce your risk even if heart disease runs in your family.
Myth: The Birth Control Pill Doesn’t Affect Your Heart Disease Risk
Truth: Oral contraceptives don’t raise their risk for heart disease for most women, but for a small segment of the population the pill can be associated with an increase in blood clots and heart attack. “If you’re over the age of 40, smoke, have hypertension or certain blood clotting disorders, oral contraceptives can dramatically increase your risk for having a heart attack,” says Dr. Turek.