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Women and Statins: What You Need to Know about Managing Your Heart Health

Imight feel like there’s just no room to add anything to your already full to-do list, but there’s good reason to make time for prioritizing your heart health. 

“Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, more than all cancers combined,” says Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, a consultant for the Take Cholesterol to Heart campaign and an attending cardiologist in private practice at the Juhi-Ash Integrative Health Center in New York City.

Moreover, Reader’s Digest recently conducted a consumer survey developed in partnership with ‘Take Cholesterol to Heart’ to explore attitudes around awareness and understanding of heart disease risk, specifically related to cholesterol. Interestingly, this survey revealed that while older Americans stay informed about relevant medical issues, when it comes to heart health, only 52% of the responders said they make every effort to maintain healthy cholesterol levels – a major risk factor for heart disease – and even fewer (46%) have discussed their heart disease risk profile with their doctor.

 

Know Your Risk

Taking a deeper look at high cholesterol, you might be wondering – What is it and who’s affected by it?

High cholesterol affects more than 95 million Americans and is a major risk factor for heart disease. It has also been associated with coronary heart disease, stroke, and linked to diabetes and high blood pressure—a concerning correlation that deserves attention.

Perhaps one of the more frightening facts about high cholesterol is the lack of symptoms. You read that correctly – if your cholesterol levels are high, you won’t know it unless you are actively working with your doctor to assess them. High cholesterol silently creates a thick, hard buildup within the walls of the arteries, which can lead to blocked blood supply and flow to the heart or the brain. The buildup can eventually result in a heart attack or stroke.

While high cholesterol was once thought to be a “men’s health” issue, that’s actually not the case. A recent study by the National Center for Health Statistics revealed that a higher percentage of women 20 and older have high total cholesterol than men in the same age group, and the rates continue to be even higher among women over 60 than for men of the same age. Dr. Steinbaum wants to clear the air: “High cholesterol management is equally important for women and men.”

Male doctor listening to the heartbeat of a mature female patient inside his office.Erickson Stock/Shutterstock

How do you manage high cholesterol?

When managing high cholesterol, certain lifestyle changes may be recommended, starting with a healthy diet. Aim to eat foods that provide nutrients that sustain you rather than empty calories – instead, reach for things like multi-grains, fruits, vegetables, and good fats filled with omega-3 fatty acids including fish, olive oil, nuts and flax seed.

When considering exercise, the American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of heart-pumping physical activity per week (that’s roughly 50 minutes of exercise 3 times a week). While there are many tips for how you can make exercise an everyday part of your life, before getting started you should consult a doctor to discuss what exercises are the best fit for you.

In some cases, lifestyle changes may not be enough. “If we’re not seeing success with diet and exercise, we then need to consider treatment with a statin to lower cholesterol,” says Dr. Steinbaum.

High cholesterol can be treated with a class of medications called statins that work by reducing the levels of cholesterol made by the liver and by helping to remove cholesterol that’s already in the blood. They typically work quickly to reduce cholesterol, and levels are rechecked four weeks after treatment is started.

Further, there are some risk factors that are unique to women.

“Some cardiovascular risk factors for women are not shared by men and cannot be changed: post-menopausal status, prior hysterectomy, oral contraceptive use, pregnancy and its complications,” says Dr. Kelly Mudon, Family Medicine Physician and Core Faculty for the Teaching Health Center at Community Health of South Florida, Inc.

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Why Some Women Resist Treatment

According to the Reader’s Digest survey, half of women agreed that “statins can be difficult to tolerate,” compared with just 36% of men. More than one third of women believe that doctors are too aggressive when it comes to statin medication, versus 28% of men, and 20% would discontinue statin treatment without consulting their doctor—just 14% of men say the same.

But why the discrepancy? Dr. Steinbaum offers a reason for this: “There was a study published several years ago that received a lot of media attention claiming statins do not work as well for women. Most of the trials investigating statin use have historically been done with men, so the way that the press talks about it is that statins don’t work for women – but that’s just not true.”

Dr. Steinbaum believes strongly in educating women about the importance of statin treatment. “For anyone who is prescribed a statin, including women, it’s for a reason – to lower cholesterol and help reduce your risk of heart disease. However, if you are experiencing side effects or have concerns, it is important to talk to your doctor before stopping your treatment – a different statin option may be a better choice for your personal situation.”

doctor explaining diagnosis to her female patientAlexander Raths/Shutterstock

There Are Multiple Statin Options

Statins are proven to be both safe and effective in the treatment of high cholesterol, and while all have the same goal of bringing down high cholesterol (in conjunction with regular exercise and a heart-healthy diet), all statins are not processed in the body the same way.

How you respond to a particular statin may differ from someone else because of individual factors such as medical history, ongoing medications or supplements, age and ethnicity. Cholesterol medication can be lifesaving, so it is important to discuss with your doctor whether or not you should be taking a medication.

If you’re currently on a statin and considering stopping it without speaking to your doctor first, Dr. Steinbaum is adamant that you reconsider. “Don’t do it! While all statins have the same goal of bringing down high cholesterol, the way a statin is processed in the body varies from person to person. Talk to your doctor about any side effects you may be experiencing and be sure to mention any individual considerations that can impact your statin treatment, as this may help them determine if a different statin may be better for you,” she says. “When I talk to my patients, I let them know that if they’re not comfortable on their medication, we can stop their current statin and try a different one. I will never make someone stay on a medication if they’re not feeling well.”

In addition to helping reduce LDL or “bad” cholesterol, statins do multiple jobs in the body simultaneously to assist in reducing your risk for heart disease, says Dr. Steinbaum, calling them a “truly remarkable medication.”

For information and resources including a doctor discussion guide, visit www.TakeCholesteroltoHeart.com.