What Disease Kills Women the Most?

Heart disease claims more women’s lives than any other disease, including breast cancer

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

WomenWhat disease kills more women than any other? Breast cancer? Lung cancer? Ovarian cancer? Colorectal cancer?


Heart disease is the leading cause of death among American women, totaling 161,698 deaths annually, according to WomenHeart. That’s more than one-third of all deaths for women. Compared to that, only 40,861 women die every year from breast cancer.

Mary McGowan, CEO of WomenHear, The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease (www.womenheart.org), hopes that by promoting education about heart disease risks and signs of heart attack in women, her organization can help drive down those statistics. One means is Women Heart’s National Hospital Alliance program, which aids hospitals in educating clinicians and patients.

Many women don’t realize that heart attack often presents differently in women than men.

“It’s important for women to understand the difference because this can be lifesaving information,” McGowan said.

Men may experience sharp pain in the chest, but women may feel short of breath, pain in the arm and back, extreme fatigue and nausea.

Because their symptoms differ from “classic” heart attack symptoms, they may not seek medical attention.

“In general, most women put other people in their family before themselves,” said Erin Burch, registered dietitian in practice as Erin Burch Nutrition in Buffalo.

Burch said that today’s women strive to “have it all”— career, home, and family — which adds up to a lot of stress and little time to cook or eat right.

“Diet is part of most disease processes,” Burch said. “A lot of times, the diet is the first thing to get pushed to the back burner.”

While prenatal health care may put women on the track for regular health care visits, once a child or more arrives, it’s harder to stay faithful to a regular health care regimen for some women, especially considering over-the-counter contraceptives can eliminate the need for doctor visits for prescribed contraceptives. Women can also use long-lasting contraceptives.

Since they’re not seeking regular physicals, some women overlook the risk factors for heart disease, which include high blood pressure, family history, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, and being post-menopausal.

McGowan added that female-specific risk factors include pregnancy if the mother experiences hypertension and pre-diabetes related to the pregnancy.

“The science is showing that pregnancy is a first cardio stress test for many women,” McGowan said. “These issues that develop during pregnancy can be precursors for heart disease later in life.”

Healthy women who become pregnant don’t elevate their risk of heart disease during pregnancy, but all women should receive prenatal care.

Patients aren’t the only ones not thinking about heart disease. Women Heart literature states, “A 2005 American Heart Association study showed that only eight percent of primary care physicians and 17 percent of cardiologists knew that heart disease kills more women than men.”

More women need to ask for the screenings that could save their lives. These include blood pressure, cholesterol, body mass index, and pulse, which can detect arrhythmia.

It makes sense to get evaluated for heart disease risk since physicians can prescribe medication to protect against heart attack. But once heart damage is done, it’s done.

On Feb. 3, WomenHeart is offering complementary screenings in 46 states at Burlington stores. Call store locations for more details.

Are You at Risk? By the numbers

According to WomenHeart, the following factors increase the risk of heart disease for women:

• Cigarette smokers are two to four times more likely to develop heart disease than non-smokers.

• 44.9 percent of women have total cholesterol of at least 200mg/dL.

• 31.7 percent of women do not engage in leisure time physical activity.

• 61.2 percent of Caucasian women, 81.9 percent of African-American women, and 76.3 percent of Mexican-American women are overweight or obese.

• Women with diabetes have a 2.5-fold higher risk for developing cardiovascular disease (CVD) compared to women who do not have diabetes, and men with diabetes have a 2.4-hold higher risk for developing CVD compared to men who do not have diabetes; women with diabetes and CVD have a 2.2-fold higher risk of dying from CVD compared to women who do not have these two conditions; men with diabetes and CVD have a 1.7-fold increased risk of dying from CVD compared to men who do not have these two conditions.

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