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Women's Health

When you think of heart disease, you probably picture an overweight, middle-aged man clutching his chest and falling to the floor. But the truth is, heart disease can also come in the form of a young, fit woman experiencing jaw pain, or no symptoms at all.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States, yet surprisingly, only 54 percent of women are aware of this, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"Heart disease has traditionally been thought of as a man's disease, with most studies and research done on men's hearts," says Suzanne Steinbaum, M.D., cardiologist and director of women's heart health at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. "In reality, heart disease kills one in three women each year."

Here's what every woman needs to know about heart disease:


Many women mistakenly believe that breast cancer is the health threat to watch out for, when really, more women die from heart disease and stroke than from all cancers combined, says Richard Snyder, M.D., board-certified family practice physician and chief medical officer at Independence Blue Cross in Philadelphia. Since 1984, more women than men have died each year from heart disease, according to the American Heart Association (AHA), and the gap between men's and women's survival continues to widen. "Among women over the age of 20, the numbers are staggering," says Steinbaum. One-third of white and Hispanic women—and half of African-American women—have cardiovascular disease. Yet, only one in five women considers heart disease to be her greatest threat, according to the AHA.

Another scary stat from the AHA: 90 percent of women have one or more risk factors for heart disease or stroke. Underlying heart conditions, birth control pills, smoking, a poor diet, and a lack of exercise can all contribute to heart disease striking at a young age. (And combining birth control pills with smoking can increase your risk by 20 percent, according to the AHA.) In fact, a small study published by the Heart and Stroke Foundation in Canada found that almost half (48 percent) of participants—who were young with no known heart disease risk factors—already had signs of blood vessel thickening (known as atherosclerosis), which is often one of the first signs of cardiovascular disease.

However, the study also discovered an easy way to determine if you're likely to have thickening blood vessels: measure your waist and hips. Participants with early signs of heart disease tended to have hip measurements that were smaller than, or almost the same as, their waist. But whether you do or not, you're never too young to start making the lifestyle changes necessary to ward off heart disease, say researchers, such as eating heart-healthy foods, staying active, and reducing stress.

A new national survey released by Orlando Health revealed that 60 percent of women thought heart screenings weren't recommended until after age 30—but experts recommend that screenings should actually begin at age 20. "Heart problems begin developing in our teens and early twenties," says Maria Carolina Demori, M.D., cardiologist at Orlando Health Heart Institute. "If we don't take action and start preventing the progression of that process, it's only going to get worse." Demori recommends women begin regular checkups with their doc by age 20 to monitor blood pressure, cholesterol, weight, and glucose levels, and also recommends undergoing an EKG to uncover any existing heart damage.

Because heart disease symptoms vary greatly between men and women, they're often misread. In dudes, the classic heart attack symptom is left-sided chest pain or pressure, sometimes radiating down the arm or into the jaw, says Snyder. Women, on the other hand, tend to have symptoms that are super subtle, such as fatigue, shortness of breath, indigestion, back pain, even jaw pain. "If you're experiencing any of these symptoms, it's best to go straight to the local emergency room and prevent potential damage to your heart," says Snyder. (Dance your way fit with High-Intensity Dance Cardio, the first-ever socanomics DVD!)

"A common myth is that heart disease doesn't affect women who are fit," says Snyder. "But even if you're very athletic, your risk for heart disease isn't 100 percent eliminated." Sure, things like overeating and a sedentary lifestyle increase your risk, but you can be thin and have high cholesterol—everything from your eating habits to being a social smoker can cancel out other healthy habits you have on lockdown.

Roughly 64 percent of women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease reported no previous symptoms, according to the CDC, and this is likely because of how easy it is to brush off certain signs as no biggie—you might blame your lightheadedness on standing up too fast, shortness of breath on skipping the gym, and fatigue on a crappy night's sleep. "Women need to pay attention to their heart, and notice if the activities they normally do are suddenly more difficult," says Steinbaum. "If they are, consider getting your heart checked." Exercise is sometimes the best way to monitor how you feel by assessing how much activity you can do, she says. RELATED: 'I WANTED TO BE A BALLERINA—UNTIL I REALIZED I COULD DIE OF SUDDEN CARDIAC ARREST' 7.

Managing your hormones is an uber-important move in keeping your heart healthy, says Arizona-based functional medicine specialist Westin Childs, D.O. Estrogen is cardio protective, meaning it protects against heart disease—hence why a woman's heart disease risk increases significantly post-menopause. "This drop in estrogen is managed genetically, so you can determine when your risk of heart disease increases based on when your mother went through menopause," he says. Additionally, out-of-whack thyroid hormones can cause an uptick in cholesterol, and in turn, lead to heart damage. Everyday habits like eating healthy, exercising regularly, and scoring plenty of shuteye can go a long way in keeping your hormones balanced. You can also consult with your physician about having your hormone levels tested, then work together to set (and reach) heart-healthy goals, says Steinbaum.

Up to 80 percent of heart disease and stroke events may be prevented with straight-up lifestyle changes, according to the AHA. "Heart disease is often due to modifiable risk factors directly related to lifestyle choices," says Steinbaum, all of which can be eradicated by eating healthy, exercising on the regular, knowing your numbers (blood pressure, cholesterol, glucose), ditching the cigs, and, of course, checking in with your doc when something's out of whack or you're just feeling off. Because heart disease symptoms in women can be as impossible to decipher as season two of True Detective, it's always better to go with your gut than risk damaging your heart.