Heart disease is the leading killer of women, and one reason is that women fail to recognize the symptoms of a heart attack or act on them until it’s too late. Women (and the men in their lives) need to understand that the symptoms of a heart attack can be very different in women than in men, and many doctors don’t even recognize them.
As the American Heart Association (AHA) says, “We’ve all seen the movie scenes where a man gasps, clutches his chest and falls to the ground. In reality, a heart attack victim could easily be a woman, and the scene may not be that dramatic.” Dr. Kathleen McNicholas, a former heart surgeon, said that sudden death is not unlikely to be the first presenting symptom of a heart attack in women. That’s why it’s important to recognize one when it’s happening, and to act quickly.
For both men and women, the most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. However, women are more likely to experience some of the other common symptoms, many of which do not appear to be heart related. That’s why it’s important to know what they are.
The most common symptoms of a heart attack, according to the AHA and Dr. Oz are:
- Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
- Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach that lasts for more than a minute.
- Shortness of breath, with or without chest discomfort, to the point where you can’t walk and talk simultaneously
- Nausea, vomiting, and/or indigestion that is not helped by antacids
- Unusual, extreme fatigue to the point where you can’t do simple chores
- Breaking out in a cold sweat
In a recent New York Times article, Dr. Noel Bairey Merz, director of the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles, said that if someone experiences any of these symptoms, they should immediately call 911, and then chew an aspirin. You can also chew several low-dose aspirin – just so you get about 325 mg. Low-dose aspirin (like you would take if you are on a daily aspirin regimen) come in chewable form. Keep them handy wherever you go. It is important to chew rather than swallow the aspirin if you think you’re having a heart attack because the effect is more rapid There are even aspirin dispensers that double as key chains, such as the At Heart Emergency Aspirin Dispenser, so there’s no reason not to have aspirin available at all times.
There are many things that women (and everyone) can do to keep things from getting to this point. Prevention is key, and can start early in life, with diet, exercise, and healthy lifestyle choices, regardless of your family history. The Mayo Clinic has “eight strategies to kick-start your way toward a heart-healthy diet.” Eating a plant-based diet, with no meat or dairy, is clearly good for your heart. According to Hearthealthywomen.org, “The buildup of fatty plaques in the arteries is a lifelong process. As you get older, blockages in the arteries get larger and may cause problems.” Such well-known public figures as President Bill Clinton and comedienne/actress Rosie O’Donnell embraced a plant-based diet after their own heart attacks.
If you have a history of heart disease as a child or in your family, or have any other reason to be concerned (such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, being overweight, a history of smoking, or chest pains), check with your doctor to get a recommendation for a good cardiologist.
Based on your history, symptoms, and other factors, your cardiologist may recommend any of an array of diagnostic tests to determine whether you have a blockage or any other problem that needs attention. The basic tests, such as an electrocardiogram (EKG), an echocardiogram, and an exercise stress test (generally on a treadmill), are non-invasive and painless. Depending upon your insurance, if the cardiologist feels that tests are warranted, they may very well be covered, at least in part. Even if everything turns out fine, at least you’ll have a baseline by which doctors can measure your heart health in the future.
During his recent interview with Rosie O’Donnell, where they talked about her recent heart attack (at the age of 50), Dr. Oz, a cardiothoracic surgeon, noted a number of other risk factors that may be less obvious. For example, “the chance of a heart attack doubles if you’re taking care of a sick spouse.” He also said that if you’ve gained more than 20 pounds since high school, your risk of a heart attack goes up more than 50%. Belly fat in particular releases toxic chemicals. A sedentary lifestyle can also be a risk factor. For both men and women, the risk of heart disease increases with age. According to Hearthealthywomen.org, menopause increases the risk because the levels of estrogen, which are believed to protect the heart, drop significantly.
O’Donnell’s reaction to her symptoms, which began with severe pain in her biceps, is emblematic of why too many women unnecessarily die of heart attacks. She said that when she started feeling symptoms, she “Googled women’s heart attack symptoms” and realized that she had a number of them. She took some aspirin, as she had seen in television ads for aspirin, but did not go to the hospital. She chose instead to make an appointment with a cardiologist the next day, where an EKG found a massive blockage in an artery. The male-centric view of heart attacks is still evident in the name of what she had suffered – “the widow maker.”
O’Donnell wrote about her heart attack on her blog, and is striving to educate other women so that they can avoid the mistakes she made. She advises women to insist on an EKG if they believe they had or are having a heart attack, even if their doctor does not suggest it.
During the upcoming weeks, many of you will be visiting family and friends to celebrate the holidays. This will be a great opportunity to give a valuable gift to the women in your family: talk with them about how to take care of their heart, and how to recognize the often subtle symptoms of a heart attack before it’s too late. Many women might feel embarrassed about calling a doctor, let alone calling 911, with what may seem like vague symptoms, but it’s better to err on the side of caution. Regardless of what it is, remember that pain is your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong. There is just a small window of time once you start experiencing symptoms, so it is important to call 911 (or the emergency service number in your area) right away. As O’Donnell says, “Know the symptoms ladies, listen to the voice inside, the one we all so easily ignore.
Heart-Healthy Tips for the Holidays
1. Don’t neglect your healthy eating. We are exposed to all sorts of goodies around the holidays that we wouldn’t normally eat. Be conscientious about what you’re eating. If you’re entertaining, or bringing something to a potluck or party, make sure that it’s not just delicious, but low in fat and calories. This also means that you won’t have to spend the month of January at the gym working off the added pounds.
2. Don’t forget to exercise. Even if you don’t have time for your usual trips to the gym, make a commitment to do some type of exercise every day – even if it’s taking a walk. That’s also a good way to clear your head and relieve stress.
3. Plan ahead as much as possible. Rushing around at the last minute, whether shopping or preparing for guests, simply increases your stress level. Take some time to relax and enjoy the holidays!
4. Don’t take on more than you can do. You don’t have to say yes to every invitation or volunteer to help with every school event. Do what you can do comfortably.
5. Most importantly, as Heart.org says, “Give the gift of information to yourself…and someone else!” Schedule a full check-up for yourself, and make sure that your friends and family (particularly those 55 and older) are doing the same. The AHA’s “Go Red For Women” campaign provides information about heart disease designed specifically for women.
Educate yourself about heart disease, and share that information. You could very well save a life.
Courtesy Image: The American Heart Association