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Heart Attacks in Women
|Can Heart Attacks Be Prevented?
There are many underlying causes of heart attacks, some we can do something about (such as obesity), others which we cannot (such as genetics). The best way to reduce your overall chance of having a heart attack is to reduce your heart attack risk factors, as well as your general risk factors for heart disease. By doing so, you significantly lower your chances of having a heart attack, even if you have already had one. A prevention strategy may include taking prescription drugs, undergoing screening tests and making lifestyle changes.
What Medications Can Help?
Aspirin: Aspirin is part of a group of drugs called antiplatelets or blood thinners which help to make the blood less sticky and less likely to clot. If you have already had a heart attack, or are considered high risk for a first one, your doctor may prescribe a daily aspirin therapy. If he does not, ask him why not. If you are undergoing surgery such as heart angioplasty to unblock arteries you may be prescribed a stronger anti-clotting drug such as Plavix before and after the procedure.
Beta Blockers: These drugs reduce the workload of the heart and help prevent heart attacks. If you already had a heart attack you are likely to be prescribed beta blocker drugs and will need to take them for the rest of your life.
ACE Inhibitors: ACE inhibitors expand the blood vessels allowing blood to flow more freely. They are prescribed to people with symptoms of CHD as well as those who have had a heart attack.
Cholesterol Meds: Cholesterol drugs help reduces 'bad' levels of LDL cholesterol in the blood. Atherosclerosis (image), the buildup of fatty deposits in the arteries which causes blockages, is partly caused by elevated cholesterol levels.
Supplements: Taking a folic acid supplement and other B vitamins may help prevent heart disease in women, although this still needs more research. See also, natural remedies for heart disease.
Can ERT Help Prevent Heart Attacks?
There are pros and cons to taking estrogen replacement therapy (ERT) and studies conflict on its effect on heart disease in women. Some show that postmenopause women who take ERT reduce their risk of heart attacks by 30 to 50 percent. They show that women who do not take ERT after menopause are at highest risk, those who take it for the first 10 years are at moderate risk and those who take it continually are in the lowest risk group. A Mayo Clinic study suggested that if all women between the ages of 40 and 59 took estrogen, they could reduce their overall risk of heart attack by as much as 45 percent. However, other studies show that ERT has the opposite effect and actually increases the risk of heart attacks. For this reason the American Heart Association does not recommend taking ERT for heart attack prevention, but states women who need it for other purposes should continue taking it. Talk to your doctor about your personal risk factors and whether hormone replacement therapy is an option for you.
What Lifestyle Changes Should I Make?
The good news is, it is never too late to quit. By the time a woman has become an ex-smoker for 2 to 3 years her increased risk of a heart attack disappears. This is even true for heavy smokers who have smoked for years. Insurance companies have recognized this fact and now give ex-smokers standard policies. Women who smoke and take oral contraceptives are up to 40 times more likely to suffer a heart attack than those who do neither. However this does not necessarily mean you should stop using the 'pill' but rather you should quit smoking because its risks are much higher.
Obesity in women: 70 percent of all heart attacks can be traced back to obesity. Researchers are not exactly sure why this is but it may be due to indirect health risks associated with obesity such as hypertension (high blood pressure) and diabetes. Check out books on heart disease for a list of resources on reducing your risk factors.
Sustained levels of stress long-term can speed up the rate of atherosclerosis and blockages in the arteries. It is also more likely to cause a person to 'comfort eat' and choose high calorie junk food and perhaps smoke or drink alcohol, clogging the arteries further. See, is there an online test for stress? and read about the dangers of stress.
Studies show that even moderate exercise after a heart attack can reduce the chance of another one. If you have an existing heart problem, discuss starting a program with your doctor first. They may recommend joining a cardiac rehab exercise program, or alternatively following a home cardiac exercise program.
The aim of a heart healthy diet is to avoid foods that choke the arteries and limit empty calorie foods (those that contain little or no nutrition like cakes, candy or take-out food).
Heart disease in pregnancy: The rise of hormone levels and physical changes in a woman’s body which takes place during pregnancy can trigger a number of heart related conditions, the most common being hypertension. High blood pressure is more common in the third trimester and can lead to pregnancy complications such as preeclampsia. This is why blood pressure levels of pregnant women are routinely checked during doctors visits. Women with existing heart problems should discuss their condition with their cardiologist before becoming pregnant.
Should I Have My Heart Tested?
Yes, heart disease testing is recommended by the American Heart Association, even for people with no symptoms of heart disease. They recommend a resting electrocardiogram (ECG) (image) at the ages of 20, 40 and 60. This is a painless test where electrodes are stuck to skin of the chest and limbs to monitor the electrical activity of the heart. Some doctors recommend a treadmill test (image) for those with heart attack risk factors and those who work in physically stressful jobs. This is a type of ECG that monitors the heart under stress conditions. Another test worth investigating is vascular screening, which uses ultrasound technology to monitor blood flow through the body. The gold standard for testing for coronary heart disease (the main underlying cause of heart attacks) is coronary angiography (image), but this is invasive and is only recommended for people with heart disease indicators such as severe angina attacks or symptoms of chest pain.
Other Useful Information
Chelation: Chelation treatment may help to reduce your risks of heart attacks, but this therapy is still not approved by most respected health organizations.
Angina: Chest pain which is an indicator of underlying CHD. Read about risk factors for angina.
Heart Tips: Learn to recognize heart attack symptoms. The signs can be different in women than in men. Read also about the causes of heart attacks.
Defibrillators:Read about using an automated external defibrillator in case of sudden cardiac arrest.