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Killer Wake-up Call: Women, Weight, and Heart Disease

Killer Wake-up Call: Women, Weight, and Heart Disease


Despite the skinny celebrities like Jessica Simpson and Lindsay Lohan who grace our magazine covers, Americans, on the whole, are fat. Studies show that over two-thirds of adults in the United States are overweight, and over one-third are obese. These studies also demonstrate that weight problems are leading to heart disease and other serious conditions, and even premature deaths.

So, what do the media reports highlighting these studies mean to us Americans? For some, they are just more statistics that go unnoticed. But not for me. The obesity epidemic is very real and personal for me. After battling with her weight for years, my mom ended up in the hospital with chest pains at the age of 58.

What's Weight Got to Do with It?

Because my mom had struggled with her weight over the years, she became a prime candidate for cardiovascular disease. Studies have found that obese and other overweight people face an increased risk of:

  • heart attacks
  • congestive heart failure
  • angina
  • abnormal heart rhythm
  • sudden cardiac death

Excess body weight leads to these heart issues because obesity can:

  • increase triglyceride and low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or bad, cholesterol levels
  • decrease high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or good, cholesterol levels
  • raise blood pressure
  • induce diabetes

Women, Weight, and Heart Disease

Even with my mom's weight issues, I had trouble understanding how she could have ended up in the hospital with chest pains. I always thought that heart disease primarily affected men. I was wrong.

Following my mom’s hospitalization, I discovered some startling facts about American women, their weight, and heart disease, including:

  • Women account for over 60 percent of congestive heart failure deaths in the United States.
  • Over 64 million U.S. women are overweight; 34 million of them are obese.
  • The leading cause of death for American women is heart disease.
  • 32 percent of women in the United States die from some form of heart disease.
  • Each year, six times more women die from heart attacks than from breast cancer.

Thankfully, my mom has not become a part of the grim statistics above. Her artery was over 98 percent blocked, but an angioplasty (medical procedure for clearing clogged arteries) saved her life. She is still being treated for congestive heart failure, but she is doing much better.

Signs of a Heart Attack

One reason my mom survived the blockage in her heart is the fact that she sought medical assistance when she first noticed the signs of a possible heart attack. Both women and men, especially those who are overweight or have other risk factors, need to be aware of the symptoms of a heart attack.

Although movies and television shows tend to portray intense heart attacks that strike suddenly, many times heart attacks begin with mild symptoms that begin slowly. Signs of a heart attack include:

  • chest discomfort – may feel like pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain
  • pain or discomfort in one or both arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach
  • shortness of breath (with or without chest discomfort)
  • increased or irregular heartbeat
  • other signs, including:
    • cold sweat
    • nausea/vomiting
    • lightheadedness
    • paleness or pallor

Although both men and women are likely to experience chest pain or discomfort during a heart attack, women have a greater chance of experiencing the other symptoms, especially shortness of breath, nausea, and back or jaw pain.

If you notice any of these signs in yourself or another person, even if they go away and return, call 911 for assistance immediately.

Tips for a Healthier Heart

Being aware of the signs of a heart attack is only one small way to protect yourself. Excess weight and other factors can affect your heart's health. Taking preventative measures to improve your heart's health could save your life.

Become and Stay Active

Studies show that regular intervals of physical activity can improve your heart's health. General guidelines recommend that adults engage in either:

  • at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity five or more days per week, or
  • at least 20 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity three or more days per week

The good news for people who are currently not participating in physical activity of any sort is the fact that the 30 minutes per day can be broken into three ten-minute intervals and does not have to involve going to the gym or buying expensive equipment. Everyday activities such as walking, moderate housekeeping, and dancing can count toward your activity. (Be sure to discuss changes to your activity program with your doctor before you make them.)

Eat a Heart-healthy Diet

In today's fast-paced society, fried fast food and unhealthy snacks have become a part of our diets. These foods can clog your arteries, add inches to your waistline, and contribute to obesity, all of which can lead to heart disease.

Your physician or a nutritionist can help create a healthy, heart-friendly diet for you; however, here are some tips to get you started:

  • reduce your overall daily calorie intake
  • eat four to six small meals and snacks throughout the day
  • eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day
  • avoid food high in fat and sugar
  • plan ahead to have fresh and low-fat foods available
  • avoid fad diets

Maintain a Healthy Weight

An improved diet and exercise program should help you shed extra pounds. By maintaining a healthy weight, you can strengthen your heart. Many health professionals use a combination of your body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference to determine whether you are at a healthy weight. Work with your doctor to find your ideal weight.

Other Important Steps

In addition to steps related to your weight, there are other things that you can do to keep your heart healthy, including:

  • getting regular blood pressure screenings at least every two years
  • having your cholesterol checked at least once every five years
  • avoiding tobacco products

Not Hitting the Snooze Button When You Get the Wake-up Call

Thankfully, my mom survived her "heart scare," but she is living with congestive heart failure and working with a specialist to control her weight. It is a tough road, but she is working toward a healthier life.

Her blocked artery and angioplasty served as a wake-up call for my mom. The feeling that I almost lost my mom, the facts I learned about women and heart disease, and the recent passing of my aunt (discussed in December's Wake-up Call article) all served as my own personal wake-up call. For the first time in more than 15 years, I am a healthy weight. Hopefully you will find some inspiration in these stories, too.

More articles in this Wake-up Call series will be appearing on DocShop throughout 2008.

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