Ask any American woman about what screenings and exams they need to be healthy, and they’ll likely mention an annual physical, maybe an OB/GYN appointment. But unfortunately, only about 8% of women know when they need to start getting heart screenings—if they know they need to get them at all.
At NitzaMD, our mission is to educate and empower women about their increased risks of suffering or even dying from preventable heart disease. One of the first steps you can take is to get your regular heart screenings. So, what is a heart screening, why do you need one, and how often should you get one? Let’s dive into the basics!
What is a Heart Screening?
A heart screening is a way to learn more about your risk factors for heart disease so you can start taking action to prevent it. The screening will involve a number of tests that help you and your doctor make a plan for healthy lifestyle changes to prevent heart disease, as well as discuss any necessary medications or further treatments.
If you are at a normal risk, these screenings can be performed as part of your annual physical. If you have two or more risk factors for heart disease, you should ask about a more comprehensive exam.
How do you know if you have an elevated risk for heart disease, stroke, or heart attack? Take this quiz to find out!
What Will Happen in a Heart Screening?
A regular heart screening typically involves a simple blood draw and some other noninvasive tests, which will look for:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- High weight/Body Mass Index (BMI)
- High blood glucose (or “blood sugar”)
You may be asked to fast (avoid eating or drinking) for 8 to 12 hours to ensure the most accurate results.
During your appointment, you and your doctor should also have an honest conversation. They’ll ask you about your lifestyle habits, such as whether you smoke, how much alcohol you drink, how physically active you are, and what your diet looks like. You should also talk about your medical history. Be sure to tell your doctor about any history of heart disease in your family, including in your parents, grandparents, and siblings.
What Kinds of Tests Will Be Run?
If you have an elevated risk for heart disease, your doctor may order a comprehensive heart screening, which may include one or more in-depth tests.
There are different types of stress tests, but the most common is the exercise treadmill test. This test involves running on a treadmill or pedaling on a stationary bike while your doctor monitors your blood pressure, heart rate, and heart electrical activity for abnormal changes that could suggest a blockage or restricted blood flow.
Heart CT Scan
A CT scan takes a number of x-rays to provide a 3D picture of your heart, including its chambers, muscles, valves, and arteries. This type of scan can help your doctor identify blockages or problems with your heart’s physical structure.
Cardiac Catheterization (Coronary Angiogram)
A coronary angiogram also uses x-rays, only it involves injecting a special dye into your heart. This dye is easily recognizable by x-ray machines and helps your doctor look for any restrictions in blood flow going to the heart, such as narrowed arteries. This is the most common type of cardiac catheterization and provides an extra level of detail about your blood vessels.
When Should a Woman Get Screened for Heart Disease?
Nobody is exempt from heart disease—not even the young and the healthy. That’s why every woman should start receiving basic heart screenings at age 20. Once you reach menopause, you could benefit from more regular or more comprehensive screenings.
If you are at an elevated risk for heart disease or are experiencing symptoms (even subtle ones!), you will benefit from seeing a heart specialist earlier in life. Symptoms you shouldn’t ignore include (but aren’t limited to):
- Shortness of breath
- Back pain, especially an ache between your shoulder blades
- Irregular heartbeat
How Often Should She Get Screened?
Regular heart health screenings and examinations should be performed every 2 to 4 years for women under 55, though your doctor may recommend more frequent checks. Here are the guidelines set out by the American Heart Association:
- Blood Pressure: Once per year if less than 120/80 mm Hg
- Cholesterol: Every 4-6 years for adults with normal risk levels under 40
- Weight/Body Mass Index: Once per year or during any regular health care visit
- Blood glucose: At least every 3 years
Schedule Your Heart Screening Today!
It wasn’t until 2016 that the American Heart Association released their first statement recognizing that heart disease is underrecognized in women. While that announcement has gone some way toward raising awareness, there is still plenty of work to be done!
About 64% of women who died suddenly of heart disease had no previous symptoms. If you’re experiencing symptoms of heart disease or know you are at risk, you should be examined and evaluated. After all, no matter who you are, heart disease is a real threat. Prevention is the most important intervention!
NitzaMD: Heart Disease Prevention for Women
Learn more about how you can #preventthestent with our Live Long Stay Young heart disease prevention programs, and sign up for our newsletter for monthly tips and tricks on living a heart-healthy life. Don’t let yourself become a statistic. Take ownership of your health with help from NitzaMD!