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Women and heart disease

Do you think only stressed-out male executives die of heart attacks? If so, you’re wrong. Heart disease is an equal opportunity killer, taking the lives of more than 200,000 women each year. In fact, heart attacks are the leading killer of women, taking six times the number of lives lost to breast cancer.

True, men are more likely to suffer attacks, but more women will die from their first attack. Why? Sixty percent of all fatal heart attacks kill within the first hour, and many women delay getting help until it’s too late. Women also have their first attack later in life than men, when they may be more fragile. Even more alarming, women’s heart disease death rates are not dropping as quickly as men’s. Women’s smoking habits and lack of exercise may be to blame.

Risks you CAN’T control

  • Age. Almost 73 percent of women who have heart attacks are 65 or older; only 27 percent are 45 to 64.

  • Gender. A woman’s heart-attack risk rises after menopause because of a drastic reduction in the female hormone estrogen.

  • Heredity. If one or both of your parents had heart attacks, you’re more likely to have one.

  • Race. African-American women are more likely to die of a heart attack than white women, due to generally higher blood pressure rates.

Risks you CAN control

  • Smoking. Studies show smoking one to four cigarettes daily doubles your risk. If you smoke and take birth control pills, your heart-attack risk rises 50 times.

  • High blood pressure. Hypertension raises a woman’s risk of heart attack three to five times. Exercise can help lower your pressure, as can reducing the use of salt and alcohol.

  • High blood cholesterol. Cholesterol -- the soft, fat-like substance present in every cell of your body - is damaging to artery walls. A total cholesterol level below 200 means your risk of heart disease is low. A level over 240 doubles your risk. If you don’t know your cholesterol level, get it checked today!

  • Stress. With more women now in the workplace, increased stress has become a major health concern.

Are you having a heart attack?

The most notable sign of a heart attack is the feeling of squeezing pain in the center of your chest that spreads to your shoulders, jaw, arm or back and lasts for at least two minutes. Other signs include dizziness, fainting, sweating, upset stomach and shortness of breath.

If you have one ore more of these signs, call an ambulance right away or have someone take you to the hospital emergency room -- fast.

Keep your heart healthy

Have your blood pressure checked and treated if it is high, eat a diet low in fat, exercise, lose extra weight and stop smoking. After menopause, ask your doctor about estrogen supplements.