HAMPTON ROADS — Each year, one in every three women will die from heart disease.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the U.S.
Dr. Alexandra Ward is a Riverside cardiologist and director of the Women’s Heart Center.
The often overlooked symptoms that women face when it comes to understanding their heart health is a topic that is near and dear to her heart.
“Women are just not aware of how prevalent and impactful cardiovascular disease is,” she said. “It’s super important to talk about and know about.”
Ward wants women to be aware of risk factors for heart disease and how to prevent it.
There are two types of risk factors, including traditional factors, which both men and women share.
These would be risk factors that are easily recognizable to most people, such as high-blood pressure, smoking, obesity or high cholesterol.
However, there are also risk factors that are specific to women.
These involve pregnancy complications like preeclampsia or eclampsia which can increase cardiovascular risk in women.
Other factors can include mental health-related conditions, such as anxiety and depression.
“I think we all know that women tend to take care of everybody else before they take care of themselves,” Ward said. “I always say you can’t take care of anybody else if you haven’t taken care of yourself.”
Ward encourages women to do whatever works for them to treat anxiety or depression, whether it’s therapy, talking to a doctor about medications, or practicing yoga or meditation.
Heart-healthy diet and exercise, like walking, is also impactful, Ward said.
Women who have already developed heart disease should look out for signs of a heart attack or coronary artery disease, Ward said.
The most common sign of a heart attack for men and women is chest pressure. However, Ward said that it is harder for both patients and providers to identify a heart attack in women as they tend to have a constellation of symptoms.
These symptoms can include: shortness of breath, sweating, nausea and, most notably, extreme fatigue.
There are specific cardiological conditions that are more common in women, such as microvascular angina, which is when the blood vessels in the heart become smaller when they are meant to get larger.
As someone with a family history of early cardiovascular disease, which would include someone under the age of 60, Ward is passionate about identifying risk factors.
“It’s my family history, I can’t fix that,” she said. “But I can work really hard on making sure I don’t develop any of those other risk factors.”
The Women’s Heart Center focuses on treatment and comprehensive collaborative care, meeting the needs of each individual patient.
“I’m a firm believer that patients know their bodies better than we the providers do,” Ward said.
The Women’s Heart Center works with the patients to develop comprehensive treatment plans, cardiac evaluations, risk assessments and other treatment and education services.
“Our goal is to really work on these numbers, so it’s no longer one in three, but one in six or one in 10 women,” Ward said.