The importance of taking care of your heart! While Women’s Heart Week (February 1-7) spotlights the risk of heart disease in women, heart disease is an issue for all seasons.

Heart disease is the number one cause of death in American women.

“One in 30 women die from breast cancer; 1 in 2.6 dies from cardiovascular disease. Women don’t realize their own risk,” says Dr. Sally Haskell, Acting Director, and Comprehensive Women’s Health for VA’s Women Veteran’s Health Strategic Health Care Group, and physician at the VA New England Health Care System.

Dr. Haskell says women often underestimate the threat and there’s still the misconception that heart disease is more of a man’s disease.

But for women who are dealing with such problems as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes or obesity, the risk is equal, if not greater in some cases.

For example, diabetes increases women’s risk of heart disease more than for men’s.

Another notable difference is that sometimes the symptoms in women suffering a heart attack can be out of the ordinary.

“The presentation of heart disease and heart attack can present a little differently. Women are a little bit more likely than men to have atypical symptoms such as shortness of breath, or pain in the neck or jaw [rather] than typical symptoms such as chest pain,” says Dr. Haskell.

Only recently has women’s heart health come to the forefront of health conversations. In 2008, Dr. Hani Jneid, assistant director of Interventional Cardiology at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston, led a study to investigate the disparities between men and women’s heart health care.

The study found that women were less likely than men to receive the early medical treatments and invasive procedures critical to combating heart disease.

“What was fascinating in our findings is that we showed persistent disparities in care in a very large contemporary national multicenter registry, and the fact that women appeared not only to be under-treated but also to receive more delay in care,” says Dr. Jneid.

Taking Control

Since then doctors such as Jneid and Haskell have been focused on educating women Veterans and fellow health care providers about heart disease.

“We educate [women] not to discard these symptoms, to seek medical care early, and to have their risk factors monitored and controlled,” says Dr. Jneid.

Controlling one’s diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol, eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise and not smoking — all can be critical steps to preventing heart disease.

As part of the Women Veterans Health Strategic Health Care Group, Dr. Haskell has partnered with health care providers to provide patients with methods to control their risks and to be alert to symptoms.

“We are not only educating health care providers about the disease but also educating them in how to talk to their patients.”

And with patients and doctors talking to increase awareness, the goal of better heart health is closer for all Veterans.