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February 2006: Women and Heart Disease

01 Feb 2006

Sheryl L. Murray, M.D., Pharm.D., has been on the Weiss Memorial Hospital staff in the Department of General Internal Medicine since 2003. She trained at Rush Medical College in Chicago and completed a residency in Internal Medicine at Rush University Medical Center in 1995. Dr. Murray has an adult internal medicine based practice with focus on women's wellness issues, in addition to teaching responsibilities for medical residents at Weiss Memorial Hospital.

Women and Heart Disease

Dr. Sheryl Murray
Weiss Physicians and Wellness Center
Weiss Memorial Hospital
(773) 472-0812

Heart disease is the number one cause of death in American women. Despite the fact that it is estimated that almost one in three women will eventually die of heart disease or stroke, a 2003 American Heart Association poll showed that only 13 percent of American women considered heart disease their greatest health risk. Women often deceive themselves by believing that breast cancer is the disease that they should fear most, while the rate of death from breast cancer equals one out of twenty-five.

Women develop symptomatic heart disease an average of 10 - 15 years later than men. Once a woman reaches the age of fifty, the risk of heart disease increases dramatically. The major risk factors for heart disease include cigarette smoking, hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity and sedentary lifestyle. Patients can reduce these risks through exercise, smoking cessation, weight loss and proper nutritional counseling.

Non-modifiable risk factors which predict heart disease in women include family history of heart disease, race and menopausal status. Women with two or more of either modifiable or non-modifiable combined risks have the highest likelihood of having coronary artery disease develop over their lifetime.

Women are less likely to survive heart attacks than men. No one knows why. It may be that women do not seek treatment as soon as men, or that the symptoms of coronary artery disease present in atypical ways. Women should pay particular attention to the following symptoms:

  • Unusual pain in the chest/stomach/abdomen
  • Nausea or dizziness
  • Shortness of breath or breathing difficulties
  • Unusual anxiety or fatigue
  • Heart palpitations

The presence of any of these symptoms should prompt immediate medical attention and evaluation.

Doctors diagnose heart disease based on a history of symptoms, physical exam findings and appropriate diagnostic tests. Some of these tests are more invasive than others. A simple electrocardiogram (EKG) can be done in the office as a screening tool. In other instances an excercise stress test or referral to a cardiologist for more invasive testing (angiogram) may be needed. Once diagnosed, heart disease can be managed by a combination of options such as medications, angioplasty or bypass surgery.

Heart disease in women is treatable and curable. Women should take the time to evaluate their lifestyle, family history and general health in consultation with their doctor for the goal of assessing cardiac risks and reducing future health problems. If you would like to learn more about heart disease or would like to set up an appointment, call Dr. Sheryl Murray at (773) 472-0812.