By Lana Lawrence Turnbull
Just for a moment,
imagine yourself in this scenario…
You’re a busy wife and mom, younger than 55 years old, life is hectic and you haven’t been feeling quite up to par. You’ve had an overall feeling of weakness, some pain in your neck, shoulder and back. You’ve had trouble sleeping and are feeling anxious. So what do you do? Make an appointment with your primary care physician? Take a couple of ibuprofen?
Millions of American women have heart attacks each year, with no other symptoms than these. Because they don’t recognize the symptoms that could signal the onset of a heart attack, they don’t get the immediate care they need and suffer serious or fatal damage to their hearts.
If you are a woman, understanding your risks, recognizing your potential symptoms and taking appropriate action if a heart attack should strike, can save your life.
Heart disease is the #1 killer of women and claims more than 460,000 women’s lives each year. That’s about one death per minute. And yet, many women still don’t realize the danger and don’t recognize the symptoms. In a recent research study of women who had heart attacks (conducted at the Yale School of Medicine), most women surveyed simply did not connect the symptoms they experienced with a heart condition. Instead they attributed their symptoms to fatigue, indigestion, stress or overexertion. These women said they also delayed seeking treatment because they were busy caring for their families, and for those who did call a primary care physician or go to the emergency room, many still experienced delays in care because their healthcare providers mistakenly diagnosed them with non-cardiac conditions.
So what should women know about heart attacks?
No two women have exactly the same heart attack symptoms. Some women experience a few symptoms, while others have all of the common symptoms, and some exhibit no symptoms at all before a heart attack. The sooner you can recognize your symptoms and take appropriate action, the better.
Heart attack symptoms particularly common in women include:
• Sudden onset of weakness
• Shortness of breath
• Body aches
• Overall feeling of illness (without chest pain)
• Sleep disturbance
Typical heart attack warning signs experienced by both men and women:
• Chest pain or discomfort
(It may last for a few minutes then goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or stabbing pain.)
• Pain radiating to the neck, shoulder, back, arm, or jaw
• Pounding heart, change in rhythm
• Difficulty breathing
• Heartburn, nausea/vomiting, abdominal pain
• Cold sweats or clammy skin
Don’t let the expectation of the “Hollywood version” of a heart attack with crushing chest pain, fool you. Be aware of the more subtle symptoms. If you experience any of them take an aspirin to prevent further clotting and call 911 immediately. Since we know healthcare providers sometimes fail to recognize women’s heart attack symptoms, it is also very important to insist that your ER doctor or nurse order an EKG test or an enzyme blood test to see if you are having a heart attack. Don’t be shy – it’s your heart and your life!
Over 31% of all deaths in Mississippi are a result of cardiovascular disease, with more women dying than men.
Know your risk factors for heart attack.
Aggressively managing risk factors can prevent or delay the onset of heart disease, even in women with strong family histories. For those who already have heart disease, control of risk factors can slow or even halt the progression of the disease, and strongly improve outcomes.
Non-controllable risk factors:
• Family history of coronary artery disease or stroke
• Age 55 or older
• Being post-menopausal, or having your ovaries removed
Note: A family history of premature cardiac disease (less than 60 years,) especially in a sister or brother, may be a particularly important risk factor in women. Women with such a family history should be aggressive in controlling cardiac risk factors.
Controllable risk factors:
• Sedentary lifestyle
• High total cholesterol, and/or reduced HDL cholesterol
• Metabolic syndrome
• Increased C-reactive protein (CRP)
• Use of birth control pills, especially if also a smoker
• Complicated pregnancy (hypertension, diabetes, low birth weight)
The way you live each day affects your heart. An unhealthy lifestyle can lead to a heart attack. Knowing the many confusing symptoms of a heart attack, being aware of your risk factors for heart disease and making positive lifestyle changes now could save your life.