Umara Ali Raza, MD, sees many more men than women coming into her office asking about preventive steps to combat heart disease. Women aren’t visiting as much even through heart disease is the No. 1 killer of both American women and men.
“With such a huge risk, one should be taking possible steps to prevent that problem from happening,” says Dr. Raza, a UC Health cardiologist, who sees patients primarily at West Chester Hospital but also at UC Medical Center. “I think the biggest thing we need to know is the risk factors for heart disease.”
Dr. Raza, an assistant professor in the UC College of Medicine’s Division of Cardiovascular Health and Disease and a member of the UC Heart, Lung and Vascular Institute, says the risk factors for heart disease include, “all the things we know are bad for us,” such as:
High Blood Pressure
And one more risk factor, says Dr. Raza: aging.
“We all want to live longer, but as we age, we have to be even more proactive in focusing on our health and having positive things in our daily lives, for example exercising, eating healthy, and if we do have a health problem, taking care of that by taking medications as directed,” explains Dr. Raza.
Dr. Raza’s advice comes as the nation recognizes February as American Heart Month and Friday, Feb. 1, as National Wear Red Day, an effort by the American Heart Association (AHA) through its Go Red for Women initiative to raise awareness of cardiovascular disease among women. About 610,000 people die annually of heart disease, or one in every four deaths according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr. Raza says awareness of the dangers of heart disease among women remains a concern, as supported by surveys conducted by the AHA and American College of Cardiology.
“One of the biggest impediments for women seeking health care is that they always feel responsible for others,” says Dr. Raza. “We put our needs at the end of the line, and we don’t seek out help when we should. I think if you are a mom, sister or wife, you can’t take care of others unless you take care of yourself. My best advice is to take care of yourself so you can take care of all the important people in your life.”
Dr. Raza says everyone should have a primary care doctor, and adults age 30 and over need to check in with their physician annually to have their lipids, blood pressure and blood sugar checked. “If you see a doctor regularly, and there is a problem, they can nip it in the bud as opposed to it becoming a real issue in the future,” she explains. “So, I am all about recognizing what the risk factors are and focusing on them.”
Regular exercise offers wonderful preventive benefits, but the term exercise can mean different things for different people, says Dr. Raza.
“I have patients who tell me ‘I exercise,’ but for them, exercise is strolling on the cul-de-sac,” says Dr. Raza. “I have patients who say they exercise, and they are doing triathlons. I think what we need to recognize is the AHA recommends that we should do at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise every day and then two sessions of strength training a week.
Dr. Raza says aerobic exercise is when one’s heart rate is elevated, and if that isn’t happening, a person isn’t really pushing themselves like they need to be.
For most people exercise and a reasonable diet go hand-in-hand. Individuals fighting morbid obesity may initially focus more on improving their diet with exercise as a supplement.
“One healthy habit leads to the other,” says Dr. Raza. “You can’t be exercising and eating junk food. Exercise has so many advantages. You can drop your blood pressure, improve your blood sugar control and your cholesterol numbers. It also improves bone marrow density, especially in women, who at a later age are more prone to have osteoporosis.”
The AHA suggests that for a healthy diet and lifestyle, a person must use at least as many calories as they eat daily.
One of the best known episodes of heart disease, heart attack, can appear to strike without warning. But the AHA says some common signs of heart attack include uncomfortable pressure on the chest that lasts for a few minutes; pain or discomfort in one or both arms, jaw or stomach; shortness of breath; and breaking out in a sweat, or suffering nausea or lightheadedness.
The symptoms of heart attack can also present themselves differently in men and women.
The AHA says the most common symptom of heart attack in men and women is chest discomfort, but women are also more likely to experience some of the other symptoms mentioned, especially shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.
“This is not a science,” says Dr. Raza, adding that symptoms like pain can be described differently by different people. “There are academic papers that have been published stating that symptoms for men and women are the same, but women are describing it differently, and some academic papers show that women have different symptoms.
“The most common thing I hear from women who go on to be diagnosed with heart disease is, ‘I am tired’ or ‘I feel really exhausted.’”
“I think if a woman is having unexpected fatigue, she suddenly can’t exercise the way she used to or is having unexpected shortness of breath or chest discomfort, that would be something she should bring up with her physician,” Dr. Raza says, adding that she does “grill” her female patients on some matters. “When they say, ‘I just feel tired.’ Everyone feels tired these days—what is so concerning about your fatigue that you came to see me? When I dig in deeper, they tell me they have shortness of breath There are some subtle differences to watch for.”