It’s time for an important pop quiz. The following are among the leading causes of death for American women. Which one do you think kills the most women in the U.S. every year?

  1. Alzheimer’s Disease
  2. Heart Disease
  3. Stroke
  4. Breast Cancer

The answer may surprise you. Heart disease is the number one killer of American women each year. In fact, with 1 in 4 women dying of heart disease, all types of cancers combined do not kill as many women every year as heart disease. If this surprises you, there’s a good reason. For too many years, studies on heart disease focused on men – so much so that heart disease is sometimes considered a “man’s disease.”

Other subtle clues reinforce this idea, including the prevalence of pink ribbons meant to raise awareness about breast cancer. The more pink ribbons we see and the fewer red ribbons we see, the more our attention and perception can be skewed about the most prevalent health threats facing women. Thinking that heart disease is a “man’s disease” or that cardiovascular disease is less of a concern than other diseases afflicting women is a dangerous myth.

Causes of Death Among American Women

Here is some hard data about the percentage of American women killed by the top health risks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention1:

  • 24 percent - Heart Disease. Also known as “cardiovascular disease,” heart disease includes a range of issues, most of which are reated to plaque buildup in arteries.
  • 22.2 percent - Cancer. While breast cancer receives plenty of publicity, it is significantly less likely to lead to death than heart disease. In fact, breast cancer ranks second to lung cancer in female cancer deaths.
  • 6.3 percent - Stroke. While stroke is considered different than heart disease, it is closely related in terms of how it develops and how it affects an individual.
  • 5.9 percent - Chronic lower respiratory diseases. The most common chronic lower respiratory disease is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

Important Truths Relating to Heart Disease in American Women

Often overlooked or downplayed in the literature and media surrounding women and heart disease are these:

  • Roughly the same amount of women as men die from heart disease.
  • Symptoms of heart disease can differ between the genders. While both genders may experience tightness in the chest, women are far likelier to experience flu-like symptoms as well, including nausea and vomiting. Some researchers believe this has distracted some women from the true nature of their illness.
  • Nearly two-thirds of women who die suddenly of heart disease did not know they had it.
  • Heart disease affects a higher rate of African-American and Hispanic women than Caucasian women and Asian American women. That breakdown is:2
    • African-American: 7.6 percent
    • Mexican-American: 5.6 percent
    • Caucasian: 5.8 percent
    • Note: Asian-American women are thought to have a lower incidence of heart disease, but studies to determine an appropriate statistic are ongoing.

How to Reduce Your Risk

If the above sounds pretty somber, it is. But there is a detail that should cause you to, well, take heart. To drive the point home, here’s another quiz. What is the best way to fight against heart disease? Rank your choices:

  1. Coronary bypass
  2. Exercise and nutrition
  3. Implanted Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD)
  4. Statin medication

Hopefully the answer to this question is obvious. While statin medication, bypass surgeries, and ICDs are all strategies to deal with a diagnosis of heart disease or a life-threatening event related to heart disease, exercise and nutrition could help prevent a great many of the heart-related deaths of American women. In fact, of the significant women’s health risks, heart disease is among the most preventable. While some of the deaths attributed to heart disease are, indeed, genetically based (these are often grouped under the name “Congenital Heart Disease”), many of them are due to lifestyle choices, including poor diet, lack of exercise, and too much stress.

As defined by the American College of Cardiology, here are the risk factors (in order of importance) in developing heart disease: obesity/being overweight, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking. What jumps out at us when we read a list like this is how preventing heart disease is mostly about lifestyle – and how it’s never too early or too late to start the process of change. (Here’s a handy link to heart disease prevention guidelines.)

Supplements and Heart Health

If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you’re considering ways to change your lifestyle to help improve and promote heart health. If you’re a smoker, maybe you’re trying to quit or have successfully quit. If you’re overweight, you’re probably substituting vegetables for fries. You’re trying to get aerobic exercise three times a week. Some of these changes will be the toughest you ever have to make, and there are plenty of programs, literature, and support groups to help.

But some strategies to help your heart aren’t at all difficult to do, including adding vitamins and supplements to your daily routine. Nutritional supplements, mostly in the form of oral tablets, are intended to provide the body nutrients it may not otherwise get in sufficient quantities. More than half of Americans take a supplement—usually a multi-vitamin—and an increasing number of doctors recommend making these a part of your lifestyle. Among the key heart healthy supplements are Omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil, flaxseed oil) and Coenzyme Q10, otherwise known as CoQ10, or Ubiquinol. Both Omega-3 and Ubiquinol have been shown to support hearth health. For those heart patients on statin medication, supplemental Ubiquinol can help replenish the body’s CoQ10 reserves, which statin drugs deplete. More in-depth information on how Ubiquinol promotes heart health can be found here.

So, now you know: The number one killer of American women is also one of the most preventable. Although it may not be easy to make changes, knowing what changes to make is pretty simple.

References

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Leading causes of death in females. United States, 2009. http://www.cdc.gov/Women/lcod/2009/index.htm
  2. Roger VL, Go AS, Lloyd-Jones DM, Benjamin EJ, Berry JD, Borden WB, et al. Heart disease and stroke statistics—2012 update: a report from the American Heart AssociationCirculation. 2012;125(1):e2–220.