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Women Take Heart: Coronary Disease Does Kill

Dr. Bernadine Healy brings us the latest on heart disease and women, and talks about Vice President Cheney's heart condition.

As we've been reporting, Vice President Dick Cheney is undergoing tests for an irregular heartbeat. Doctors may also fit him with a pacemaker. Dr. Bernadine Healy will tell us about the procedure.

Contrary to popular belief, heart disease not just a man's problem. In fact, it is the leading cause of death among women in the United States, killing more than half a million each year. But in a recent survey, most women listed cancer as the greatest risk to their life.

Why the disconnect?

Dr. Bernadine Healy will answer our questions.

What is the procedure Vice President Cheney is undergoing?

The first thing that will happen is Vice President Cheney's heart will be tested. It should take about 40 minutes. Doctors will then decide whether to put in an implantable cardioverter defibrillator, or ICD. Its main function is to deliver electric functions to the heart.

Would such a device get in the way of his duties as vice president?

No. This device is designed to be implanted and then you forgot about it. It will in no way hamper his role as vice president.

Why don't more women know that heart disease is the number one killer?

Heart disease is known as the 'widow maker.' There is some truth to this. Young men do have more heart attacks than younger women. But as women grow older their chances of developing a heart attack go up, especially after menopause. So what we have is a perception problem--a myth that has been perpetuated throughout the years. This is not a good thing because unlike many cancers, heart disease is more preventable. There are steps women can take that will substantially cut down their risks of developing it.

You say prevention is especially important in women because once they get heart disease, they don't recover as well as men do.

That's right. Women are more likely to die within a year of having a heart attack, or to have a second attack during the 6 years after the first one. Also, women don't do as well as men after bypass surgery and other procedures to open blocked arteries.

What are the biggest risk factors for women?

The two biggest risk factors are high cholesterol and high blood pressure. The problem is these conditions have no symptoms, which is why women need to get tested. The good news, though, is that there are drugs on the market that keep cholesterol and high blood pressure in check.

What about those drugs, specifically the cholesterol-lowering statins?

Drug companies are strongly pushing statins, and they do have beneficial effects. For instance, a study in this week's New England Journal of Medicine found statins may lower the amount of 'C reactive protein' in the blood. From previous research, we know that people with high levels of this C reactive protein face greater risk of developing heart disease. That said, I think we need to step back and ask what are the risks associated with taking statins. We know that it is linked to problems with liver function. But there is a lot we don't know, such as the long-term risks of taking statins. As yet there have been no studies on the long-term effects. But there needs to be because statins are drugs people often take for years

We know about the importance of exercise and a good diet, but you say there are other things women can do to lower their risk. Let's begin with relaxation.

It is so important to lower your stress levels. People who anger very easily are at a greater risk of developing heart disease. Something as simple as taking a few minutes out of the day and focusing on something happy can be very beneficial. Even better, try yoga. Not only does it relax you, but it's a workout for your body, too.

Watch your waist.

The larger your waist is in relation to our hips, the higher your risk of developing heart disease.

Have a drink.

Studies have shown that moderate drinking--1 glass of wine a day--raises levels of HDL cholesterols, which are actually good for you. If you have to avoid alcohol, try grape juice. But remember, this is not an invitation to drink a lot.

Hormone replacement therapy.

This is one option a woman will definitely want to discuss with her personal physician. Studies have shown that hormone replacement therapy decreases harmful cholesterols while raising positive cholesterols. But other studies show women taking hormones are at a greater risk of developing cancer.
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