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Predicting Heart Disease In Older Women

New research shows that a routine test can be helpful for women seeking to protect their hearts.

The study, which appears in which appears in the latest Journal of the American Medical Association, indicates that heart problems in postmenopausal women are correlated with abnormal electrocardiograms (EKGs), even in the absence of prior heart symptoms.

The researchers looked at more than 14,000 women who had never suffered any heart symptoms and concluded that women with abnormal EKGs were more likely to suffer serious heart events, including fatal heart attacks, than those whose EKGs were normal.

The results, according to Early Show medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay, suggest that women may want to consider periodic EKGs, even if they feel healthy.

They are relatively simple tests you can get in your doctor's office. They're the ones that give you instant results in the form of those squiggly lines that appear either on a monitor or on a piece of paper. Many doctors include them in annual physicals.

In recent weeks, Senay points out, other useful tools have emerged to warn women of possible heart disease.

Another study in JAMA weighed the importance of various risk factors and concluded that two, in particular, may be more significant than previously believed.

One is the history of heart disease in a woman's immediate family. If either parent suffered a heart attack before age 60, the woman's risk rises. Measuring for C-Reactive Protein (CRP), a sign of inflammation in the body, was also found to improve the accuracy of any risk prediction.

By factoring in these measures alongside other risk factors, Senay explains, researchers were able to reclassify some women's risk as higher than previously believed, and other women's risk as lower.

To see the scale for yourself, click here.

Some risk factors are beyond our control, Senay adds. We can't control how old we are, and heart risk rises with age. In the case of women, it rises significantly after menopause. If we already have heart disease, we're at greater risk of future episodes. And, according to the American Heart Association, race can also be a factor. For instance, African-Americans have been found to be more prone to heart disease than white Americans.

But, Senay stresses, there are numerous factors we can control, and controlling them is especially important when the ones we can't control add to our risk. The controllable ones include cholesterol levels, blood pressure, weight, and the amount of exercise we get. Of course, smoking is a terrible thing to do to your heart. So women who smoke should absolutely stop. There's also more evidence than ever that reducing stress in our lives can decrease our heart risk.

All this matters very much because, Senay says, putting it very plainly, heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in this country. Cardiovascular disease takes the lives of far more women than all forms of cancer combined. And heart disease that's developing is often harder to diagnose in women. So, learning your risk factors, and getting proper treatment if those risk factors are there, are very important, proactive ways to help protect your health and your life.

For more from the American Heart Association on women's heart health, click here.