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SPOTLIGHT
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Heart-healthy message for women

Published on -2/14/2013, 8:21 AM

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February long has been known as Heart Month. And today, Valentine's Day, it is especially fitting we consider how to help those we love keep their hearts healthy and strong.

Heart disease often is considered a man's issue. The notion women are less susceptible to heart problems than men is widespread and persistent, but it's wrong. In fact, heart disease kills as many American women as men every year, and accounts for more deaths among women than the next seven causes of death combined.

Despite the fact heart disease is women's No. 1 killer, many people mistakenly believe cancer is the leading cause of death for women. In America, heart disease kills six times as many women as breast cancer. A woman's risk for heart disease increases two to three times after menopause, with women of color having an even higher risk than whites.

Long neglected by researchers, heart disease in women finally is getting attention. One of the most significant findings is women often have different risk factors and different symptoms than men and are treated differently by doctors.

On average, women are 10 years older than men when they're diagnosed with heart disease. One theory is the hormone estrogen protects them until menopause. But sometimes women are mis-diagnosed because their symptoms are different from men's. Unfortunately, by the time heart disease is diagnosed in women, it's often at a more advanced stage. Even if they're having a heart attack, women wait longer than men to seek care.

The danger signs of heart attack often differ in men and women. Pain is the first symptom for both, although men tend to have the classic heavy, crushing chest pain, while women have the more transient discomfort of angina. Other symptoms in women are more vague -- indigestion, fatigue, nausea or sleeplessness.

If you or a friend experience any of the following warning signs of a heart attack, call 911:

* Chest discomfort, pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.

* Discomfort or pain in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.

* Shortness of breath, which often occurs at the same time as, but can occur before, chest discomfort.

* Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, vomiting or light-headedness.

Given what experts know about heart disease, what can women do to protect themselves?

First, recognize women, too, can have heart disease. Women historically have been more afraid of breast cancer than heart disease, but now almost half of American women recognize heart disease as their No. 1 enemy.

Learn about the signs and risk factors of heart disease and work to reduce your risks.

Listen to your body, then speak up. Doctors across the country report women, even those already diagnosed with heart disease, downplay the seriousness of their condition.

Take care of yourself. Exercise, eat healthy meals, quit smoking, control stress and get the medical care you need to stay healthy and enjoy life.

Linda Beech is a Kansas State University Research & Extension agent in Ellis County specializing in family and consumer sciences. lbeech@ksu.edu

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