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What Women Really Need to Know about Heart Health

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Editor's Note: February is Heart Health month, aimed at bringing awareness to the #1 killer in America. Today we're sharing an interview with Dr. Patrice Desvigne-Nickens on behalf of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) and The Heart Truth®. Dr. Desvigne-Nickens answered our questions via email.
DailySpark: How early should women start to take steps to protect their heart health?

Dr. Desvigne-Nickens: Women need to take steps at every age to protect their heart health. Heart disease can begin early, even in the teen years, and it is important for women and girls at all ages to know about heart disease and follow a healthy lifestyle.  Women in their 20s and 30s should take action to reduce their risk of developing heart disease.

DailySpark: What are the top lifestyle changes women can make to ensure their hearts stay healthy?

Dr. Desvigne-Nickens: Most heart disease risk factors are preventable or controllable by making healthy lifestyle changes, including: stopping smoking, being physically active, following a healthy diet, and maintaining a healthy weight.  Additional risk factors that you can prevent and control include: high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, and high blood sugar or diabetes.  These conditions are silent (that is you don’t have any symptoms) so you must talk with your physician and know your numbers.  High blood pressure, high blood cholesterol and high blood sugar are often treatable with healthy lifestyle but may require medical prescriptions.

DailySpark: Which habits harm our hearts the most?

Dr. Desvigne-Nickens: Smoking, letting high blood pressure and high cholesterol go untreated, being overweight or obese, not being physically active, and not managing diabetes all can contribute to increasing a person’s risk for heart disease.
It is especially important to understand that that having more than one risk factor or condition multiplies your risk of developing heart disease.  Having one risk factor doubles your risk for disease; having two risks quadruples your risk for developing disease; having three risks increases risk by tenfold.   Don’t choose among risk factors, take charge and control your risks.  You can reduce your risk for heart disease by over 80% by controlling risk factors and a healthy lifestyle.

DailySpark: How much impact does weight have on heart health?

Dr. Desvigne-Nickens: Overweight individuals are more likely to develop heart disease even if they have no other risk factors. Furthermore, the more overweight a person is, the more likely he or she is to develop high blood pressure, high blood sugar and heart disease. Overweight and obesity also increase a person’s risk for a host of other conditions, including, stroke, diabetes, arthritis, and some cancers.
The bottom line is that maintaining a healthy weight is a vital part of protecting your heart and overall health.
DailySpark: Are there certain subsets of the population that need to pay particular care to their heart health?

Dr. Desvigne-Nickens: Heart disease is still the leading cause of death in women. African-American and Hispanic women have higher rates of some heart disease risk factors and are disproportionately affected by the disease compared to Caucasian women. More than 80 percent of midlife African-American women are overweight or obese, 53 percent have hypertension, and 17 percent have been diagnosed with diabetes. Some 86 percent of midlife Hispanic women are overweight or obese, and more than 10 percent have been diagnosed with diabetes. That said, awareness of heart disease as women’s leading cause of death has increased substantially among women of color. From 2000 to 2009 awareness among African-American women increased from 18 to 43 percent and awareness among Hispanic women rose from 26 to 44 percent.  However, awareness still lags in racial/ethnic minorities when compared with Caucasian women. The Heart Truth addresses health disparities through multicultural education resources and community-based heart health interventions for ethnically diverse groups.

DailySpark: What are the most commonly overlooked symptoms of heart disease or a heart attack?

Dr. Desvigne-Nickens: The most common heart attack symptom, in both women and men, is chest pain or discomfort. But women also are somewhat more likely to have shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, unusual tiredness (sometimes for days), and pain in the back, shoulders, and jaw.

It’s important to note that not all people who have heart attacks experience the same symptoms or experience them to the same degree. Many people aren’t sure what’s wrong when they’re having heart attack symptoms. Knowing the warning symptoms of a heart attack and how to take action can save your life or someone else’s. If you think you might be having heart attack symptoms or a heart attack, call 9-1–1 immediately.

Don’t ignore your pain or discomfort. Every minute matters when it comes to getting treatment for heart attacks.

DailySpark: How much will a healthy diet and regular exercise impact your heart health? Will they lower your risk of heart disease?

Dr. Desvigne-Nickens: A healthy diet and regular exercise can improve heart health, in particular, if combined with maintaining a healthy weight and not smoking. Regular exercise (30 minutes each day) reduces a person’s risk for heart disease and their chances of developing other risk factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and being overweight. A healthy diet can have similar effects.

DailySpark: What should women be doing during every decade to improve their heart health?

Dr. Desvigne-Nickens: Women can protect their heart at any age by adopting the following behaviors: eating right, being physically active, keeping a healthy weight and not smoking, and continuing these healthy habits throughout the rest of their lives. If the thought of adopting a healthy lifestyle seems overwhelming, remember that you can start small. Make changes one at a time and set realistic goals.
In addition, women should talk with their doctors about heart disease prevention to understand their personal risk factors for heart disease. Personal risk factors include family history of early heart disease and advancing age. Also ask your doctor to help you assess your blood pressure, cholesterol, risk for diabetes, and body mass index (BMI).

In addition, women over the age of 55 or beyond menopause have a higher risk of developing heart disease, in part because their body's production of estrogen drops. Women who have gone through early menopause are twice as likely to develop heart disease as women of the same age who have not yet gone through menopause.

To learn more about heart disease in women and how you can take action to reduce your risks, visit:  

There are also many ways that women can get involved with the NHLBI’s The Heart Truth program, raise awareness about heart disease, and get information to protect their own hearts, including:

The Heart Truth’s Web pages and Facebook page offer many resources and tools to help people lower their risk for heart disease. Also follow the program on Twitter @thehearttruth and on Pinterest
What are YOU doing to reduce your risk of heart disease?

Patrice Desvigne-Nickens, M.D., is a program director in the Heart Failure and Arrhythmias Branch in the Division of Cardiovascular Sciences at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
In this role, Dr. Desvigne-Nickens is responsible for the scientific development and fiscal management of research programs focused on prevention, recognition, and treatment in cardiovascular medicine. She is responsible for initiative development, coordinating workshops and meetings, and preparing all reports within these scientific areas for the Division of Cardiovascular Sciences and the Institute Director.

Dr. Desvigne-Nickens is an experienced clinical trialist and is the project officer for the Atherothrombosis Intervention in Metabolic Syndrome with Low HDL/High Triglycerides: Impact on Global Health (AIM-HIGH). Dr Nickens has managed trials in acute coronary syndromes, heart failure, diabetes and revascularization, cardiac surgery, and use of left ventricular assist devices in advanced heart failure.

Among her various responsibilities, Dr. Desvigne-Nickens is particularly interested in disparities in the practice of medicine and cardiovascular health and the effect on women and minorities.

Prior to joining the NHLBI in 1991, Dr. Desvigne-Nickens was a primary care physician at the Johns Hopkins Health Plan in Baltimore. In that position, she treated patients of diverse socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds who were afflicted with various complex chronic disorders such as hypertension, diabetes, and coronary heart disease.

Dr. Desvigne-Nickens received a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass. She received her Doctor of Medicine from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia. Dr. Desvigne-Nickens began her residency in internal medicine at the Thomas Jefferson University Medical Center, Philadelphia, and completed it as an NHLBI Medical Staff Fellow at the NIH Clinical Center, Bethesda, Md.

Dr. Desvigne-Nickens has reviewed or edited dozens of scientific manuscripts and is an author or coauthor of numerous articles and studies. She is a member of the American Heart Association, the National Medical Association, and the Association of Black Cardiologists.