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The Top Facts Women Need to Know about Heart Attacks

Heart Disease Kills More Women Every Year than Diseases Perceived as More Threatening, such as Breast and Lung Cancers.

When it comes to the fear factor, breast cancer has a clear edge. Most women are terrified of the disease—and rightly so, since it kills 41,000 U.S. women every year. Lung cancer—another feared disease—claims more than 70,000 women every year. Yet heart disease kills 292,000 women a year, which makes the likelihood of dying from heart disease far greater than dying from breast and lung cancer combined.

And, only 56 percent of women know that heart disease claims so many lives.

“This is a shame, because heart disease is largely preventable,” says Weill Cornell cardiologist Joy Gelbman, MD. “At birth, a woman has a 47 percent chance of eventually dying of cardiovascular disease. If more women knew this, perhaps they would be willing to take the necessary steps to prevent it.”

Top five facts
As a woman, what do you need to know? Here are the five facts about heart attacks that Dr. Gelbman feels are most important:

Women do not always have the “typical” symptoms of a heart attack.
A heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart muscle stops. Although women can experience the classic symptom—severe, clutching pain in the chest—they are more likely than men to have “atypical” symptoms. These often include:¬

Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, or a feeling of fullness in the center of the chest that may last a few minutes, or disappear and return.
Pain or discomfort in the back, jaw, stomach, or one or both arms
Pain that radiates to the arm
Shortness of breath without chest discomfort
Breaking out in a cold sweat
Feeling nauseated or queasy
Lightheadedness
Unusual fatigue that lasts several days
Feeling a sense of doom or having a gut instinct that something is very wrong

Women often delay getting medical attention for their symptoms.
“Don’t wait to call for help. Time is heart muscle,” says Dr. Gelbman.

Don’t drive to the hospital, either. Call 911. The faster you are treated, the better your chances of a good outcome, and the paramedics can start potentially lifesaving treatment on your way to the hospital.

Women are more likely than men to die from a heart attack.
Heart disease has traditionally been considered a man’s problem. But, starting at age 40, a woman’s heart health begins to decline. The risk rises with age and accelerates after menopause. After age 75, a woman’s risk of heart attack is higher than a man’s.

In reality, a woman’s heart attack is more likely to be fatal. That’s because women tend to have heart attacks at least 10 years later than men, when they are older and more likely to have other medical problems.

Poor lifestyle choices are responsible for the lion’s share of heart attacks.
Risk factors you can change to lower your risk include smoking, physical inactivity, obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar. An estimated 70 percent of women between the ages of 50 and 79 have at least one of these risk factors.

According to the American Heart Association, a woman’s risk of heart disease is generally due to poor lifestyle choices, such as inactivity, and cigarette smoking, that can cause blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels to rise. The damage is reinforced by diets that are lacking in fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and seafood, and are too high in sodium, sugar, and saturated and trans fats.

“We get busy working and taking care of our families, and, in the process, we often neglect ourselves. However, this should not be used as an excuse,” says Dr. Gelbman.

“Unhealthy habits may be difficult or unpleasant to change, but we owe it to ourselves and those we love to adopt a heart-healthy lifestyle.”

Problems in pregnancy raise the risk of a future heart attack.
Multiple conditions increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, including autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. But women are also uniquely affected by certain problems that occur during pregnancy—preeclampsia in particular, but gestational diabetes and pregnancy-induced hypertension, as well. Preeclampsia doubles the risk of a heart attack or stroke between five and 15 years after pregnancy.

It’s easy to forget about this connection in the excitement of having a new baby, but the risk doesn’t go away. "Be sure to make your internist, family doctor, or cardiologist aware of any history you have of problems during pregnancy,” advises Dr. Gelbman.

A spark of good news
The number of adults in this country dying of heart disease is steadily declining. Some of the decrease can be attributed to better medical care after a first heart attack, but some of the decline occurred because people have taken steps to adopt more heart-healthy behaviors.

“Women are generally in control of their family’s health, as well as their own, so any changes they make to reduce their risk of heart disease lowers their family’s risk, as well,” says Dr. Gelbman.


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