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Dr. Andrea Stephens, St. Luke's Hospital

Women should be proactive when it comes to their own heart health

The physician who provides initial heart health screenings for a woman may be someone you might not expect - her OB/GYN.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women as well as men in the United States. Women are generally unaware of this risk and unaware that symptoms of heart disease are different in women than men. This oftentimes leads to minimal screening to make sure a woman's heart is healthy. One way to combat this trend is for women to begin asking questions about their heart health and to get screened.

A recent study conducted by the American College of Cardiology found that two out of every 10 women consider their OB/GYN to be their primary care physician. During the study, researchers also provided women a brief survey that could identify their risk for developing heart disease. The questionnaire included topics such as family history and symptoms they may be experiencing. The findings revealed more than two-thirds of the women screened were at risk for heart disease. Researchers also found that two in 10 patients did not know their blood pressure or blood sugar levels, while four in 10 did not know their cholesterol numbers.

Women should make it a priority to educate themselves and tell their OB/GYN or primary care physician if they have not been screened for heart disease recently. This is especially true if they have a family history or have symptoms such as shortness of breath, irregular heartbeats, weakness, dizziness, nausea or sweating.

HeartCaring, a national program based on gender-sensitive education and materials from leading health organizations, helps train OB/GYNs and primary care physicians to identify heart disease risks in women. The health organizations that contribute data include the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, Vascular Disease Foundation, P.A.D. Coalition and Venous Disease Coalition.

Once trained, these physicians become certified HeartCaring practices. As such, these physicians have a better understanding about gender-sensitive care, and their patients are better positioned to identify their risk for heart disease and take action for their health.

If you already have a primary care physician, discuss any concerns you might have with them.

Dr. Andrea Stephens specializes in obstetrics and gynecology at St. Luke's Hospital with a special interest in primary and preventive care. Visit the HeartCaring page to find a HeartCaring certified physician.

This article was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on February 7, 2013.