Coronary artery disease is the leading killer of women in the United States. Women tend to ignore the symptoms of coronary artery disease and not seek medical care until it is too late. According to American Family Physician, many doctors underestimate the risk that coronary artery disease poses for female patients. Understanding the signs and what preventative measures can be taken to reduce the risk of coronary artery disease for women can improve your health.
Four out of five women in the 2005 Gallup Poll were not aware that coronary artery disease is the leading cause of death in middle-aged and elderly women in the United States. Five times more women die from CAD each year than from breast cancer.
A primary reason CAD is under-diagnosed in women is that their symptoms are different than men’s symptoms. While men usually present with crushing chest pain, women’s symptoms run the gamut from nausea, toothache, fatigue and shortness of breath to pain that runs along the neck or shoulder.
Diabetic women are at an increased risk for coronary artery disease. Women who have high levels of HDL cholesterol are also at a higher risk for developing CAD. Once a woman has reached menopause her coronary artery disease risk also goes up. Obesity and a sedentary lifestyle have been shown to increase a woman’s risk of CAD, while moderate amounts of exercise reduces the risk.
While genetics play a part in some risk factors such as diabetes and cholesterol levels, a woman can take several steps to reduce her risk. Exercise is a vital part of reducing the risk of coronary artery disease. It is also important if CAD is already present. After receiving a doctor’s go-ahead, women should exercise three to five times a week for at least 30 minutes each time. Exercise can be structured, such as taking an exercise class. It can also be unstructured such as taking walks, going dancing, riding a bike and swimming. In addition to natural methods, following a medication treatment plan such as taking blood pressure and cholesterol medications is important to reducing the risk of CAD.
Treatment for coronary artery disease depends on the location and severity. In some cases a small balloon is pushed through the arteries to open them up. Stents, which are devices that act as tunnels, are sometimes placed in blocked arteries to keep the blood flowing well. Medications to reduce blockage and to reduce high blood pressure is prescribed in less severe cases. In severe cases bypass surgery may be necessary.
Coronary artery disease in women is diagnosed through an electrocardiogram. This test measures the electrical impulses of the heart and can indicate whether a woman has had a heart attack in the past. It also points to rhythm problems and other indicators that coronary artery disease has begun.
An echocardiogram is sometimes ordered to check the structural workings of a woman’s heart. Another method for diagnosis is a stress test. A stress test can include walking on a treadmill, injecting radioactive dye to the blood to observe the pathways to the heart or inducing a racing heart rate using medication and observing the results.
Medical images including CT scans and MRIs are also used to diagnose CAD.
Several complications can arise from having coronary artery disease. According to MayoClinic.com, chest pains called angina as well as heart attacks are possible complications of CAD. Heart failure, which is not a heart attack but a slow moving destruction of the heart system, is also more likely with coronary artery disease.