If someone asked you what disease was the No. 1 killer of women in the United States, you would probably answer incorrectly.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, heart disease kills more women than all forms of cancer combined, a fact that surprised many people at the recent St. Vincent Heart Health Fair at Westfield mall. In fact, heart disease has killed more women than men every year since 1984, and half of women who suffer heart attacks never experience chest pain, according to the Heart Foundation.
Cardiolgist Kathleen Harper, a women’s heart disease specialist, said a persistent problem is lack of awareness that women can suffer heart attacks.
“There is a great need to talk about the issue, and the fact that the rate of heart disease in women is continuing to rise even in women in their 30s,” Harper said.
Preventing heart disease typically relies on maintaining a healthy lifestyle, Harper said.
“Maintain a healthy weight, know your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar numbers, and exercise regularly,” she said. “Just walking for about 20 minutes three times a week has health benefits.”
As part of the Heart Health Fair, Harper and St. Vincent’s CEO Susan L. Davis led a one-mile walk consisting of three laps around the mall’s main floor.
Davis said part of the reason why women remain unaware of the danger of heart disease is that they may not recognize the symptoms, even if they are experiencing them.
“They think if they don’t have chest pain, they don’t have heart problems, but that’s not the case,” Davis said. “Women’s symptoms can be very different, and they can be ignored or mistaken for something else, even by a doctor.”
Classic symptoms of heart disease include chest pain, shortness of breath and nausea, but women also have lesser-known symptoms, such as soreness in their jaw, a “strange” feeling in their right arm and sleep disturbance.
“Women are just wired differently than men,” said Harper. “Their bodies react differently and they can experience diferent symptoms.”
State Rep. Tony Hwang, R-134th District, who attended the walk and heart fair, said the event was indicative of the level of care patients receive at St. Vincent’s. He said the hospital and its services were worthy of support even in a difficult budget year.
“They have the heart to give up a Saturday morning so that people can come and further their knowledge on proper health care,” Hwang said. “The critical role of providing health care to all people, regardless of their ability to pay, throughout our community is the mission of St. Vincent’s. We need to properly fund our community health care organizations, and [St. Vincent’s] contribution in saving and extending lives is a mission worthy of our legislative support.”