Heart Disease No. 1 Killer Of U.S. Women

Even 'Healthy' Women Can Be At Risk

Despite education efforts, heart disease is still a leading cause of death in American women. So how do you protect yourself and your loved ones?

"I was in perfect health," said Louise Bell. "I took no medication. I was an aerobics instructor. I worked out an hour a day, five to six days a week."

Bell, 47, was a picture of good health. In fact as a flight nurse, her job was to save other people's lives. But one day, that all changed.

"I was sitting at my computer early one morning and I just had a crushing pain across my chest," she said. "When I felt the pain, I stood and then I sat down and I couldn't get back up."

Bell was having a heart attack, the first of two she would have in just a couple of days time. She had no warning signs and no risk factors. Doctors later told her it was the result of a congenital heart problem called Microvascular Disease, when small blood vessels going to the heart are blocked or have a decreased blood flow.

"I was shocked," she said. "I had no previous heart problems. No significant health problems at all, and I had felt very fortunate at 47 to be so healthy."

"So many women are still not aware that heart disease is the leading killer of American women," said Washington Hospital Center cardiologist Dr. Elizabeth Ross.

Unlike Bell, most cases of heart disease in women can be prevented. Ross said the biggest risk factors for women are smoking and diabetes. But keeping an eye on things like weight is the best way for women to avoid cardiovascular problems.

"I always remind women that they should know their numbers," Ross said. "Their numbers are their blood pressure, their waist measurement, their blood sugar and their ldl or bad cholesterol."

Ross said a good indicator of a woman's risk of heart disease is waist circumference. A waist measurement higher than 35 inches means a greater risk of heart disease.

"We think that deposting fat around your midsection means that you're depositing fat around your organs," she said. "I do think it's important for women to realize that prevention is within their hands: Eating a healthy diet, getting your weight to an ideal level and exercising regularly."

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