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APU Diseases Editor's Pick Health & Fitness Original

American Heart Month and Gender Disparities in Heart Health

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By Dr. Stacey Malinowski
Assistant Dean, School of Health Sciences

Since 1964, each February has been recognized as American Heart Month. The idea is to encourage Americans to adopt more heart-healthy lifestyles to fight against heart disease and other cardiovascular illnesses. So now that we have been observing the benefits of protecting this vital organ for 57 years, how are we doing?

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The Prevalence of Heart Disease

According to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease (CVD) remains a tremendous global health burden. In America, it claims more lives annually than all forms of cancer and chronic lower respiratory diseases (think asthma, chronic bronchitis and emphysema).

Globally, heart disease is the leading cause of death. In 2017, almost 18 million global deaths were related to CVD. And that number is expected to climb to over 22 million by the end of this decade.

Cardiac Deaths by Gender Differences

Historically, CVD was thought of as a man’s disease, but we know that almost just as many women as men now die from it. But only a little more than half of all women know that heart disease is their number one killer, responsible for one out of five deaths. CVD is also the leading cause of death for men for most racial and ethnic groups, responsible for one out of four deaths.

But what makes heart disease different for women than men?

Women may present differently and experience more of the less common symptoms of a heart attack. Classic symptoms of an “elephant sitting on the chest” may apply to women and men, but women tend to experience less obvious symptoms, such as indigestion, back pain, shortness of breath, or even just fatigue.

Women also have some gender-specific risk factors, such as hormonal changes related to menopause or high blood pressure during menopause. Women are also more likely to experience autoimmune diseases and stress or depression, which are risk factors for CVD.

How Can We Maintain Good Heart Health?

The key to maintaining good cardiovascular health for both men and women is knowing the modifiable risk factors for CVD:

  • Tobacco smoke
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Having diabetes
  • High stress levels

It is also vitally important for both women and men to seek treatment for autoimmune disorders and depression to help manage any contributing factors to heart disease. It is crucial that both men and women know the signs and symptoms of cardiovascular disease, and that women realize they may be more likely to not exhibit the typical symptoms of a heart attack.

How to Stay Heart-Healthy while at Home

One of the best ways to fight off cardiovascular disease from home is to get moving. We can all move more and sit less, breaking up exercise sessions into smaller sessions to fit within our life styles. Exercise can help you:

  • Achieve and maintain a healthy weight
  • Improve sleep
  • Reduce stress
  • Improve emotional health
  • Maintain healthy blood sugar levels
  • Lower high blood pressure.

The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate activity per week. That’s only 21 minutes per day!

During these times of social distancing, there are still plenty of ways to stay heart-healthy while in or near your home. “Moderate” activities include brisk walking, dancing, gardening, and slow bike riding. Or you can get up and clean the house or catch up on yard work. Anything that gets you up and moving is great for your heart!

Dr. Stacey (Kram) Malinowski, DNP, RN, NPD-BC, CCRN-K, PCCN-K, CNE, is the Assistant Dean and Chief Nursing Administrator. Dr. Malinowski completed her Doctor of Nursing Practice at Salisbury University and has 20 years of nursing experience, primarily in the care of critically ill adults and their families. Prior to joining the university, Dr. Malinowski worked as a Nurse Manager for a novice nurse residency program within a community hospital system on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She also served in the Army Reserve Nurse Corps for three years as a First Lieutenant with the 2290th USAH at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

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