Heart Disease: No. 1 Killer Of Women

Heart disease is often associated with men, but experts say it is the number one killer of women.

Dr. Mallika Marshall from WBZ-TV explained on The Saturday Early Show that with any disease, early detection is the primary key to survival. But unfortunately, many women fail to heed the warning signs of heart disease or get tested for it.

And when they do get tested, some women may get misdiagnosed.

Many doctors feel that traditional stress testing isn't the best indicator of heart disease in women. Now a new study from Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles says a different test, one which also uses medication to show the effects of exercise on the heart, could be a better gauge in women.

"The important thing to take away from this study is that we need to get the women in for the stress tests," says Lenox Hill Hospital's Dr. Nieca Goldberg.

For Dale Burg, a family history of heart disease prompted her to get herself examined.

"My brother went for a stress test, and, low and behold, [he] wound up having an angioplasty."

So Burg actually asked her doctor for a stress test, even though she had no obvious symptoms.

Often the challenge of diagnosing heart disease in women is that their symptoms can be different from those of men. They can be less specific and unfortunately, are frequently passed off as indigestion, anxiety, weakness or fatigue by the patient and her doctor.

"The problem with women and heart disease is that fewer than one in ten really believes she's at risk for heart disease, yet one in two women actually die of heart disease," says Dr. Goldberg.

Burg found out that she does have heart disease, but it is nothing that requires surgery. Doctors have her on blood pressure medication and an exercise regimen that seems to be working well. But, if she didn't insist on getting tested, she wouldn't have taken the steps necessary to prevent her disease from getting more serious.

So women should look for signs of heart disease, such as a family history of the illness, says Dr. Marshall. Having diabetes is also a big risk factor for developing heart disease, as is excess weight and smoking.

Experts say to reduce the chances of getting heart disease, women - and men - should live healthy lifestyles by quitting smoking, losing weight, lowering cholesterol, lowering blood pressure and reducing stress levels. Dr. Marshall says you can go a long way toward achieving these goals by taking up physical activities, such as yoga. She says prescribed medication can also help battle heart disease.

In the past, angioplasty, a procedure where doctors use a balloon to open up clogged arteries, caused complications such as bleeding in many women because the tools being used were built with men in mind and, therefore, they were larger. The good news is that today's medical equipment is being modified for women.

Also, when prescribing heart disease medications, doctors must take into account that many women weigh less and therefore may need a smaller dosage.