Women's Health

Every fall, the nation goes pink in honor of breast cancer awareness. thousands march, fundraise and sport pink clothing to call attention to the disease that will kill 39,620 women this year, according to the American Cancer society. Yet little will be said about the disease that kills more women than lung cancer, breast cancer and colon cancer combined: heart disease.

As women, we’re often so busy taking care of everyone else that we overlook things that are going on with our bodies. We’ve done a great job of being mindful of breast cancer but not much else that threatens our health. Heart disease is a bigger threat to women’s health than most of us realize.

It is estimated that one in nine women will get breast cancer in their lifetime. Yet, one in three women will have heart disease in her lifetime, according to the Metro Atlanta American Heart Association.

Heart disease poses a particular threat to Georgia women. In the state of Georgia, heart disease and stroke account for 28.2 percent of all female deaths, according to the American Heart Association. That’s the equivalent of about 27 deaths each day.

The number of people heart disease kills every year is far too high for a disease that is largely preventable with lifestyle changes and regular checkups that promote early detection. Think about it: how many of us make a point to get mammograms annually? It is likely that less than half of us that get mammograms every year even think scheduling an appointment with a cardiologist is necessary. One reason for the misconception that an appointment with a cardiologist isn’t needed is the silent way in which symptoms present in women. Often times, women don’t know something is going on with their heart. Symptoms like fatigue, shortness of breath and nausea are vague and can easily be attributed to something else like stress, hormones and even other medical conditions.

A second reason women tend to believe getting a mammogram is more important centers on awareness. Heart disease is the number one killer of women in the United States. The trouble is: how many women actually are aware of that fact?

Recently, my colleagues at Piedmont Heart put together a screening for heart disease to help women understand their risk. Of the women who have participated, approximately 40% needed to follow up with a cardiologist despite the fact they had not experienced symptoms. It is my hope that as women learn more about the disease, heart screenings will become as common as getting mammograms.

In the United States, someone suffers a heart attack every 34 seconds, according to the American Heart Association. Warning signs include chest discomfort, shortness of breath, discomfort or pain in one or both arms, neck, back, stomach or jaw. Women should also look out for a feeling of pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of the chest.

Risk factors include high cholesterol and blood pressure, diabetes, physical inactivity, family history and more. Putting Georgia women more at risk is lifestyle, especially eating habits. More than half of all women in Georgia are obese and overweight, according to the American Heart Association. Additionally, over 15 percent of women smoke cigarettes – another risk factor for heart disease and stroke. What is important to know is that heart disease is more than just a heart attack or stroke. In fact, heart disease comes in many forms including coronary artery disease, heart valve disease, cardiomyopathy, arrhythmia and more. Below is a brief summary of some of the most common forms of heart disease.


Heart rhythm problems, also called arrhythmias, cause your heart to beat too fast, too slow or irregularly. Often times, arrhythmias are harmless but they can be life-threatening, so it is crucial to see a doctor if you suspect you have a heart rhythm problem. Symptoms of arrhythmia include fluttering in the chest, a racing or slow heartbeat, chest pain, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, dizziness and fainting.

CoRonaRY aRteRY DIsease

For the first time in four decades, death from coronary heart disease is on the rise in U.S. women ages 35 to 54 years old. This shows us that heart disease is not just an older person’s disease. Coronary artery disease affects 16 million men and women in the U.S. Symptoms include heaviness, tightness, pressure, and/or pain in the chest; pain radiating in the arms, shoulders, jaw, neck, and/or back; shortness of breath; weakness and fatigue; or no symptoms at all, depending on the severity of the disease.

CaRDIomYoPatHY oR HeaRt FaIlURe

This is a form of heart disease that affects heart muscle, making it harder for your heart to pump blood throughout your body. More severe cases are commonly referred to as congestive heart failure (CHF). You can develop cardiomyopathy from another disease or illness you’ve had, heart attacks, inherit it from genetics or, in many cases, the cause is simply unknown. According to the American Heart Association, heart failure affects 5.7 million Americans and causes more than 55,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. Signs and symptoms of cardiomyopathy or CHF include shortness of breath or trouble breathing, fatigue and swelling in the ankles, feet, legs, abdomen and veins in the neck.

HeaRt valve DIsease

Nearly five million Americans are diagnosed with heart valve disease each year, according to the American Heart Association. Heart valve disease occurs when the valves in your heart have problems opening and closing properly. Largely diagnosed in older adults, heart valve disease is usually progressive and in severe cases requires surgical intervention. Symptoms include shortness of breath, weakness or dizziness, chest pain or palpitations and swollen ankles, feet or abdomen. Sometimes, patients do not experience symptoms at all.

Diet and exercise, as cliché as it sounds, play a huge role in determining a woman’s risk for heart disease. a woman can look the best she ever has but what matters is what is going on inside her body. a woman who is skinny but eats unhealthy is still at risk for heart disease. It is important to base meals around fresh vegetables, fruit and whole grains and be sure to keep the red meat to a minimum. try to choose better fats (avoiding saturated fats and trans fats whenever possible) and eat more monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. by adding things like fish, olive oil, avocado and nuts to your diet, you are equipping your body with omega-3 fatty acids which are known to benefit the heart.

Some things you can do to instantly reduce your risk of heart disease include:

Quit smoking.
Manage blood sugar and triglyceride levels, particularly if you are diabetic.
Exercise regularly. At least 30 minutes, five days a week.
Reduce stress levels. High stress situations can raise blood pressure (further increasing your risk of heart disease) and may tempt you to overeat high-fat foods, which in turn raises LDL cholesterol.
Watch your weight. Weight loss can both raise HDL and lower LDL.

Keep in mind: it is far better to see a preventive cardiologist earlier in life, before problems arise. Working with a doctor to establish heart healthy habits early on and preventing heart disease is much easier and certainly less expensive than paying for medications and procedures once the problem is detected.

For more information about the new women’s heart screening program at Piedmont or to take a free, online assessment of your own risk for heart disease, visit piedmontheart.org.

Dr. Jyoti Sharma earned her medical degree from Emory University School of medicine. Before coming to Piedmont Heart, Dr. Sharma completed her cardiology fellowship at the University of Texas and received specialized training from MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas for treating heart disease in cancer patients. she is one of the lead physicians for Piedmont Heart’s women’s heart program and has been recognized nationally for excellence by the American Heart Association’s clinical council on Women in Cardiology.