Cardiovascular disease appears a lot earlier in Hispanic women than in American women, mainly because of obesity and lack of physical activity.
The latest data from the American Heart Association indicate that 76 percent of Latinas are prone to be overweight or obese.
“It’s a problem so severe in Hispanic women that it has created more diabetes prevalence, hypertension and high cholesterol, which are the secondary effects of obesity,” says Dr. Verónica Rodríguez, a cardiologist at Mount Sinai Medical Center who specializes in cardiovascular disease in women.
“There is an epidemic in our countries and in our culture,” says Dr. Mike Díaz, a cardiologist at Palmetto General Hospital and an American Heart Association volunteer.
“It has to do with the lack of education about symptoms and the need for regular checkups. The Hispanic woman tends to be a housewife in charge of taking care of a family, though not of herself. She is under a lot of pressure, and symptoms go unnoticed to her.”
In general, cardiovascular disease appears in men beginning at age 55, while it appears in women at 65. However, in the case of Hispanic women, “cardiovascular disease appears 10 years earlier than in the rest of the women in the country. In other words, at the same age as men,” Rodríguez says.
Every minute a woman dies of heart disease. Ninety percent of women have 10 or more risk factors of developing heart disease, according to the American Heart Association.
“Before menopause, women have a lower risk of suffering from cardiovascular disease,’’ Díaz says.
“After menopause, and as they grow older and accumulate all the risk factors, most of these women die of cardiovascular disease.”
But their symptoms “are not that obvious,” Rodríguez says. “Strong fatigue and tiredness, lack of breath, nausea and dizziness are the usual first symptoms.”
“Women tend to think that it is something related to family or work rather than to the heart and therefore do not become alert more quickly about cardiovascular disease.”
There are symptoms that are generally associated with cardiovascular disease, such as a severe headache, throbbing teeth, acute pain on the side, chest pain, or abdominal problems with gas or inflammation.
“This does not mean that you are going to have a heart attack at that moment, but these are signals that should not be overlooked, like those appearing in the upper abdominal area or nausea. These appear suddenly but are extremely important,” Rodríguez says.
Another symptom is a backache with tingling in your fingers.
“Chest pain sometimes moves to the back area. Other times to the neck and the jaw area. People often think they have a tooth problem and what it really is comes from chest angina moving up through the jaw.
“It can also go through the person’s arms, not only the left one but any area adjacent to the chest,” he says.
Pain in the legs with inflammation can also be related to the heart. “If the person has cholesterol plaques in the legs, it is likely that cholesterol plaques will also develop in the heart arteries. Inflammation in the legs and fluid retention are the first symptoms of congestive failure,” Rodríguez says.
Preventing cardiovascular disease begins with modifying and controlling risk factors “like smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity in children entering adulthood. Obesity causes resistance to insulin, thus causing diabetes. Today we already know a lot about high cholesterol and ways to lower it. And what is always present in all these risks is obesity and lack of exercise,” Díaz says.
Periodic checkups are part of prevention.
“Everyone must have their cholesterol, blood pressure and glucose checked in order to determine whether any factor risk is developing,’’ Diaz says. “What can definitely be controlled is smoking, exercise and nutrition.”
The American Heart Association recommends “a cholesterol checkup at the age of 20, depending on family history, and a frequency of tests according to the results. It is also convenient to check blood pressure and glucose every year.”
Both the association and the American College of Cardiology highlight the importance of aerobic exercises, walking, biking, elliptical machines or dancing Zumba. Cardiovascular exercises must be of moderate intensity from 30 to 45 minutes a couple of days a week, or more -- if not every day. “Exercising is extremely important because it will prevent the cardiovascular disease from progressing as well as the appearance of more symptoms. Also, it will improve the quality of life and energy level of the person,” Rodríguez says. “And a good diet is as important as exercise. We have recently learned that the Mediterranean diet is ideal for the heart.”
“We have lowered the percentages of people dying of a heart attack. Now we need to work a little more in the preventive part,” Díaz says.