Imagine a person having a heart attack: The victim’s eyes suddenly open wide, a hand clutches the chest, a gasp, and finally collapse. Most likely, you imagined that person as a man, but about half of all deaths from cardiovascular disease (also known as heart disease) in the United States are in women.
In 2011, heart disease was the No. 1 cause of death for women; it kills more people than any other single disease in the United States.
However, heart attacks do not often look like the “Hollywood heart attack” I described above. A heart attack (also called myocardial infarction or “MI”) is what happens when heart muscle is damaged by loss of blood flow through the arteries that feed the heart. In a 2005 survey, only 27 percent of respondents were aware of all major heart attack symptoms and knew when to call 911.
So what else can a heart attack look or feel like?
• A sensation of heavy pressure, squeezing, fullness, or chest pains
• Sharp or dull discomfort in the arms, neck, shoulders, back, jaw or upper stomach above the belly button
• Severe shortness of breath, which may occur even when you are at rest
• Cold sweats or unusual hot flashes
• Unusual tiredness or fatigue (a very common, easily ignored symptom)
• Sudden dizziness or light-headedness
• Unusual nausea, vomiting or indigestion (women are twice as likely to experience these symptoms during a heart attack)
Having any one of these symptoms for more than five minutes is reason to call 911. Do not wait or try to drive yourself to a clinic. If your symptoms are mild or brief, you should at the very least call your health care provider that day. Milder versions of the symptoms could be signs of angina, which is low blood flow to part of the heart through partially clogged arteries.
Unfortunately, women are more likely than men to be sent home from the hospital with a heart attack that was missed. If you are concerned you are having a heart attack, keep calm and describe your symptoms as clearly and in as much detail as possible. Do not downplay your symptoms. If you think you are having a heart attack, be persistent and ask for appropriate testing.
Anyone can develop heart disease, but there are some risk factors that make it more likely you will develop heart disease. They are high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, obesity, physical inactivity, a family history of early heart disease and having gone through menopause (regardless of whether it was natural or due to surgery). You cannot change your family history or when you go through menopause, but you can work with your doctor to improve your other risk factors.
It is important to remember that risk factors can gang up on you. Having two risk factors might make you six times more likely to have a heart attack; reducing or eliminating one or the other may drop your risk significantly.
Take care of your heart: Exercise regularly, enjoy fruits and vegetables more often (including frozen and dried), stop smoking, control diabetes and control your blood pressure and cholesterol. Goals for cholesterol and blood pressure depend on your health history and risk factors.
Food choices, exercise and medication can make a difference in both. Get more information about heart attacks and heart disease in women at TheHeartTruth.com, womenshealth.gov/heartattack/, millionhearts.hhs.gov and GoRedForWomen.org.