Women’s Heart Health, Part 3: Tips for Talking to your Doctor
Alyssa Vela, PhD; Assistant Professor of Surgery & Psychiatry, Northwestern Medicine
Allison Carroll, PhD; Research Associate, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine
Most women understand that their heart health is important. Yet, unlike for men, women’s heart health is talked about far less. As you read in Women’s Heart Health Part 1, women’s risk for heart disease changes throughout the lifespan, particularly during puberty, pregnancy, and menopause. However, women of any age can benefit from practicing basic health behaviors, such as those outlined in Women’s Heart Health Part 2.
One of the biggest challenges women face is how to talk to their doctor about their heart health. This article will outline some of the topics you might bring up to your doctor, as well as specific questions to ask, and provide some general tips.
Identify your unique risk factors for heart disease with your doctor
Your personal characteristics, such as age, race/ethnicity, weight, and family medical history, can all affect your heart health and disease.
- It may take time but learning about your risk for heart disease can help you focus on what to do about it.
- Share more about your family history and the current health of your parents, siblings, and children.
- Ask your doctor for recommendations for good resources to learn more, such as the American Heart Association website and their Go Red for Women campaign (see below).
- Questions to ask:
- What are my risk factors for heart disease?
- How can I reduce my risk for heart disease?
- How might my other medical conditions (e.g., diabetes) impact my heart health?
- Should I get genetic testing to better understand my risk?
- [For your children’s doctor]: What can I do to help my child live a heart-healthy life?
Discuss your health behaviors and strategies for improving your health behaviors
Health behaviors, such as smoking, diet, exercise, stress, sleep, and taking your medications, all play a role in your heart health and risk for heart disease.
- These health behaviors can all be changed, and even small changes can make a big difference.
- Your doctor can provide you with resources, recommendations, and referrals to support healthy behavior change.
- Questions to ask your doctor:
- Which behavior do you recommend I focus on first?
- How do I balance so many different diet recommendations, such as low-sodium, low-sugar, low-carb, and low-fat? [I feel like I’m not allowed to eat anything!]
- How am I supposed to take my medications? Why are these medications important for me to take? If I am having side effects from my medications, what can I do about it?
- Where can I get more help to improve my health behaviors?
Ask your doctor for a referral to a specialist
Your primary doctor often doesn’t have the time or expertise to address everything during your appointments. Suggesting or requesting a referral to another provider can help you address your concerns, prevent and manage symptoms, and improve your overall quality of life. You might request a referral for:
- A registered dietician to address your specific nutrition questions and help with weight loss or weight management, as needed.
- Cardiac rehabilitation or physical therapy to help you be more active and address any physical problems at might be limiting you.
- A sleep clinic to rule out or treat sleep apnea, insomnia, and other conditions that interfere with good sleep.
- A psychologist or counselor to help with mental health concerns, stress management, quitting smoking, improving diet and exercise, or managing sleep problems.
General tips for discussing heart health with your doctor
- Start the conversation! Don’t wait for your doctor to bring it up or until you’re sick or having problems.
- Go into your appointment with questions: Do your research in advance and have questions ready when you see your doctor. Let them know at the beginning of the visit you have specific questions you would like to discuss.
- Write your questions down: Oftentimes, people forget their questions as soon as the doctor walks in the door. Write them down on a piece of paper or make a note in your phone.
- Include your friends and family: Consider bringing someone with you to your medical appointment. Another person can help ask questions and remember important information after the appointment.
- Don’t hesitate to request a referral to other providers and specialists that can help you meet your goals and live you best life!
Each person is the expert of their own body and experiences – you are the only one who has been to every single one of your medical appointments! You can use that expertise to engage in helpful and productive discussions with your doctor and to be your own healthcare advocate.
Women have the power to take prevention into their own hands, whether that means preventing heart disease entirely, or treating problems or complications due to heart disease. Understanding your heart health throughout the lifespan, focusing on good health behaviors such as diet, exercise, stress, and sleep, and engaging in your own care can set you up to meet your goals and have good quality of life.
American Heart Association (AHA): https://www.heart.org
AHA Go Red for Women: https://www.goredforwomen.org
AHA “Menopause and Heart Disease”: heart.org/en/health-topics/consumer-healthcare/what-is-cardiovascular-disease/menopause-and-heart-disease
AHA “High Blood Pressure and Women”: heart.org/en/health-topics/high-blood-pressure/why-high-blood-pressure-is-a-silent-killer/high-blood-pressure-and-women