The Medical Minute: Women's heart health -- the best valentine

February 07, 2005

By John Messmer
Penn State Family & Community Medicine
Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center
Penn State College of Medicine

What's a woman's biggest health risk? Breast cancer? Osteoporosis? Alzheimer's? None of those. The most important health risk facing women is heart disease.

Consider these statistics: One in 22 American women has heart disease at any time, compared to one in 1,326 for breast cancer; one in about 11,000 for cancer of the cervix; and about one in 33 for Alzheimer's in women between age 65 and 74. A National Institutes of Health task force met in 2001 to address the problem. One product of that group is the Red Dress Project (visit for more information), an annual event to draw attention to women and heart disease.

Heart attacks kill more than five times more women than breast cancer, yet many women and their physicians often do not give it the same attention it receives in men. That's because women do not typically get the classic symptom of angina (chest pain) that men do. Women more commonly experience fatigue, breathlessness or atypical pain. Women tend to be about 10 years older on average than men when they first get symptoms. Often physicians attribute the symptoms to stress, acid reflux or other non-cardiac problems when a woman with risk factors presents for an evaluation.

Controlling risk factors dramatically reduces the occurrence of heart disease in men and women. The most important one is smoking. A smoker's risk of heart disease is four to seven times higher than that of a non-smoker. Those exposed to second-hand smoke increase their risk by one-third. A one-pack-per-day smoker who also uses birth control pills increases her risk 20 times. High blood pressure increases risk by three to four times; diabetes gives an eight-fold increased risk; and lack of exercise adds another 30 percent. More than half of women older than 55 should lower their cholesterol and like men, two in three women are heavy enough to be considered obese or overweight.

The good news is most heart disease is preventable. While there have been impressive advances in treatment of heart disease, people should not rely on technology to overcome our excesses. Today's cardiac treatments address the urgent problem -- chest pain or an evolving heart attack -- but they do not make the disease go away.

Cardiovascular disease is a multi-system problem -- it affects all organs, not just the heart. Angioplasty, coronary bypass, heart pumps and transplants may keep people going, but meanwhile the brain, kidneys and other areas continue to deteriorate.

Add to that the cost -- one-fifth of the more than one trillion dollars spent on health care in the United States is spent on heart disease. In a perfect world, that means health insurance costs could be reduced by 20 percent, and physicians could provide medical care to all uninsured Americans if all preventable heart disease simply could be eliminated.

Here's the best news: Most people can reduce or eliminate the risk of heart disease without medication. Quit smoking today -- risk of heart disease will be cut in half in a year. Exercise for 30 minutes four times a week -- every week, not just in nice weather -- and the risk will be cut in half again. Adjust eating habits to achieve and maintain a normal weight, and stop adding salt to food. These actions will reduce the risk of diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

For more information on heart disease in women, visit

Remember, heart disease is the number one killer of women and is preventable. Make this a year for good heart health.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated February 16, 2010