Breast cancer may get the lion's share of publicity when it comes to women's health, but cardiovascular disease claims far more lives.

Breast cancer may get the lion's share of publicity when it comes to women's health, but cardiovascular disease claims far more lives.

Cardiovascular disease generally has been perceived as a male problem, but it kills more women than men, Dr. Kristin Linzmeyer said during a presentation at the Chamber of Medford/Jackson County Monday Forum. Moreover, heart attack and stroke kill more American women than the next seven causes of death combined.

Linzmeyer, a Medford cardiologist, said 38 percent of all deaths among American women are related to heart disease, and many women have no symptoms that might encourage them to seek treatment. She said women need to recognize they're as vulnerable to heart disease as men, and take steps to reduce their chances of having a heart attack that could be fatal or a disabling stoke.

"We need to be just as aggressive treating women," she said.

She noted that while the death rate among men for cardiovascular disease has declined, the death rate for women has stayed relatively steady or even increased. That may be because women don't recognize the symptoms of heart attack or seek rapid treatment. As recently as 2005, only about 55 percent of women knew that cardiovascular disease was the biggest single cause of death for women.

The most common symptom of heart attack for men and women is a feeling of tremendous pressure in the chest.

"There's a deep visceral uncomfortable feeling when blood doesn't get to the heart," said Dr. Brian Gross, who spoke along with Linzmeyer.

Gross, a cardiologist himself, said heart attack symptoms may be more subtle in women, especially older women who are less physically active. A sedentary woman in her 70s may have a feeling of total exhaustion or breathlessness during a heart attack, while a man in his 40s doing heavy physical work is likely to feel extreme discomfort in his chest when an artery is blocked.

Gross said women may be more prone to have blockages in the smaller cardiac arteries, rather than the large arteries that typically block in men.

Both Gross and Linzmeyer stressed the importance of diet, exercise and healthy habits to reduce the likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease. Avoiding tobacco was at the top of their lists.

"Of all the things you can do, quitting smoking is the most important thing you can do for your health," Gross said.

Reducing total food intake is as important as eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and cutting back on fats, Linzmeyer said.

"Lots of people eat pretty healthy," she said. "It's the sheer volume of food that has to be cut down."

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail bkettler@mailtribune.com.