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March 15, 2011

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Guidelines highlight women's heart risks

THOUGH heart attacks have long been taken as a male problem, the threat to women is equally as dangerous - and not helped by a lack of awareness of this fact.

The American Heart Association last month issued new guidelines for cardiovascular disease prevention to arouse worldwide awareness of the problem among women.

With an increasing death rate from cardiovascular disease, it has become the top incapacitating and deadly condition in women, experts suggested at the 10th South China Cardiological Conference in 2008. A report by the European Society of Cardiology in 2005 showed that 55 percent of European women died of cardiovascular disease while the rate was 43 percent in men.

According to the China Cardiovascular Disease Report 2009, there are at least 230 million cardiovascular disease patients in China.

"The occurrence rate of coronary disease in women is largely increased after their menopause," says Dr Zhang Weijun, chief physician of the Cardiology Department of Beijing Anzhen Hospital. "The conditions are usually more serious and complicated than those in men. They usually have more blockages in blood vessels, which contributes to high incapacity and death rates."

Technically, thinner blood vessels in women seem to be the direct cause of a more serious situation when the problem occurs - it is more likely to be blocked by stagnation. But neglect toward their heart condition also plays a crucial role in the increasing death rate, according to Dr Zhang.

Few women are aware that they are facing an increasing risk of contracting cardiovascular disease. Research from the American College of Cardiology shows that two-thirds of sudden death in women in developed countries and regions are caused by unknown cardiovascular disease.

Female hormones can help improve elasticity of blood vessels, reduce blood pressure, increase "good" cholesterol while reduce "bad" cholesterol. Hence, with sufficient female hormones, it is less likely for women's blood vessels to become hard or blocked.

However, things change when the menopause arrives. The female hormones decrease sharply and women lose their protection against cardiovascular problems. That inevitably leads to an increased risk of a heart problem occurring.

But few women are aware of the effects of these changes. Many women mistake symptoms of cardiovascular problems such as suppression in the chest, increased heart rate and shortness of breath while walking as symptoms of the menopause. Enduring the symptoms until they pass is the choice most women will make, but that often delays treatment.

Having regular heart checkups is recommended for women over 45 years old. If any symptom such as fatigue, breathing difficulties, vomiting or back pain occurs, a doctor should be consulted as soon as possible.

Taking a small amount of aspirin has long been considered an effective therapy to prevent heart attack. The new guidelines suggest that taking 75-325mg aspirin every day can help reduce the incapacitation and death rates of coronary disease. Dr Zhang suggests a dose of 75-150mg aspirin every day for Chinese people in the high-risk category.

Some heart-benefiting exercise such as brisk walking, jogging or cycling for half an hour everyday can also help protect a women's heart.

Signals of female problems

? Fatigue - about 70 percent of female patients may feel extreme fatigue days before a heart attack.

? Pain - pain in the back, shoulder, neck or chin can all be possible signals of a heart attack for women, not necessarily severe pain in the chest.

? Sweating - patients may sweat heavily for no reason, and this is usually accompanied by a loss of color in the face.

? Breathing difficulty - more than 50 percent of female patients say that they have breathing difficulties during the attack.

? Sleeplessness - about 50 percent of female patients suffer sleeplessness about a month before the attack.

? Anxiety - many female patients feel anxious before the attack.


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