Heart disease is one of the most costly and deadly ailments affecting America today, ranking as the leading cause of death for both men and women. Treatment, medications and lost productivity costs are expected to top $316 billion in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Of the 631,636 people who died of heart disease in 2006, more than half of the victims were women, according to the CDC.
Ochsner Health System department of cardiology vice chairman Dr. Richard Milani said the risk factors are essentially identical for men and women in nearly every area except for awareness.
“When you poll women, typically they’ll respond that they think breast cancer is the leading killer in women, and it’s not,” Milani said. “If women say ‘this is my husband’s disease or this is my brother’s, uncle’s or dad’s disease,’ should they start developing symptoms, they’re probably not going to get help.”
That disconnect between the numbers of female deaths each year and the risk factors associated with heart disease in women can lead to a dangerous situation, Milani said.
Risk factors such as a sedentary lifestyle, obesity, high blood pressure, smoking, high cholesterol and diabetes can greatly increase your chances of dying of heart disease, Milani said.
While these risk factors often multiply health problems, Milani said taking steps to establish a healthier lifestyle could easily tip the scales in the opposite direction.
“These risk factors snowball against you,” he said. “If you have three risk factors, it’s a whole lot worse than having two, and four is much worse than having three.”
However, the risk factors can also snowball in the other direction – more greatly lowering your risk, the more risk factors you drop.
“If you have four and you remove one, you don’t just drop your risk by 25 percent, you might drop it by 35 percent,” said Milani. “A lot of the risk falls off pretty quickly. Attacking these things can have an enormous effect.”
Milani said his first suggestion to anyone attempting to reduce their risk factors for heart disease is to stop smoking immediately, begin an exercise regime and begin working toward a healthy body weight.
“The only risk factors that you have no control over are your gender, your age and your family history,” he said. “Those are the risk factors you can’t control, but you should manage the controllable risk factors the best you can.”
Milani said a healthy diet is an often overlooked but essential part to reducing heart disease risk factors.
“When you say the word diet, immediately what comes to mind is something that is going to cause weight loss, but a diet is just what you consume,” he said. “Diets have a lot to do with one’s heart attack risk – independent of cholesterol levels, independent of weight. You could be a skinny person on a bad diet and still develop heart disease.”
A healthy diet is a good centerpiece for any healthy lifestyle, Milani said, reducing or eliminating risk factors that can pile up and lead to heart disease and heart attacks.
“The first tip besides ‘don’t smoke’ would be follow a heart healthy and cancer healthy diet,” he said. “It’s a diet that’s relatively low in saturated fat and trans fat. The types of fat that we encourage in this diet are the better fats like Omega 3 fatty acids we see in fish oil or fish and the fats found in olive oil or canola oil.”
Milani said he recommends regular checkups including blood tests to anyone trying to monitor heart disease rick factors.
“Go get a checkup,” he said. “Make sure they check your blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol profile and CRP*, and find out where you stand from a risk standpoint. Then, and only then, will you be able to do something about it.”
Regular blood tests can allow doctors to monitor your risk factors to determine what medicines if any would be best suited in your situation and will catch any problems early on, Milani said.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as they say,” he said. “A little bit of intervention early might prevent a lot more things later on.”
To learn more about the health screenings you need, take the Ochsner Health Check.
*CRP, c-reactive protein, is a protein found in the blood, the levels of which rise in response to inflammation. As a general marker for inflammation and infection, CRP levels can be used as an indicator for heart disease risk.