January 29, 2016

Heart Disease and Women: Do You Know the Signs?

By Robert A. Poarch

“Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States,” said heart nurse Michelle Nelson, Director of Invasive and Noninvasive Cardiology at Mission Health.

According to the American Heart Association, heart disease is responsible for 1 in 3 women’s deaths each year, that’s approximately one every minute. However, understanding the symptoms and risk factors may save your life, and leading a heart-healthy lifestyle can help keep you out of danger.

“Heart disease can encompass a variety of different illnesses, such as high blood pressure, congestive heart failure and blockages in the heart. These can lead to heart attacks,” said Nelson.

Heart Attack Symptoms in Women

“We’re always taught to recognize chest pain and chest pressure, but not all women experience that.. Sometimes the only symptoms a woman may have are fatigue or back pain. So, they tend to blame it on not getting enough rest or think they’ve pulled their back, and they tend to ignore it,” said Nelson.

The warning signs for heart disease for men and women are different. And, all women are not affected the same. Women who suffer a heart attack may have the following symptoms:

  • Neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back or abdominal discomfort
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain in their right arm
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Cold sweats
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Fatigue

Heart Disease Risk Factors

Traditional risk factors for heart disease, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and obesity, that affect men also affect women. Factors that increase the chance of heart disease in women include diabetes, mental stress, depression, smoking and lack of physical activity.

If you think you’re too young to get heart disease, you’re wrong. Women of all ages should take heart disease seriously, especially those with a family history of heart problems.

“A lot of it is living a healthy lifestyle and controlling the things that you can control,” said Nelson.

Know Your Body

“Women have to be attuned to their bodies,” said Nelson. “If the symptom is something new or different for you, something that you’ve not had before  you should talk to your doctor. For example, if you’ve been healthy and have had plenty of energy, and suddenly you begin to be extremely tired, put that on the radar that it could be something going on with your heart.”

Make your physician aware. “Ask, ‘Would it be appropriate to have an EKG done.’ Don’t be afraid to say, ‘There’s still something wrong, and we need to work together to figure out what this is,’” said Nelson.

The sooner heart disease can be diagnosed, the sooner you can begin to address what needs to be changed.

If You Think You’re Having a Heart Attack

If you notice heart attack symptoms, try to stay calm and call 911 immediately. Don’t drive yourself to the hospital unless you have no other options. When you get to the hospital, make it clear that you think you’re having a heart attack and not an anxiety attack. Advocate for yourself or bring someone with you who will advocate for you.

Reducing the Risk of Heart Disease

If you smoke, quit. Adopt healthy eating habits. Avoid saturated fat, trans fats and cholesterol, which can put added pressure on your heart. Exercising regularly, even just walking 30 to 60 minutes a couple of days a week, improves your chances of avoiding heart disease. Physical activity often leads to a healthy weight, which can help lower blood pressure and reduce occurrence of diabetes — both risk factors for heart disease.

Stress, anger and anxiety increase your heart rate and blood pressure, making your heart work harder. Learn to manage stress through relaxation and stress management techniques.

Check Your Numbers

“Mission Health has a lot of community heart screenings throughout the region to help you know what your blood pressure is and what your cholesterol is,” said Nelson. Nelson also recommends getting connected to a solid health clinic, like a Mission Health My Care Plus facility, with a family practice physician who can help monitor your heart health on an annual basis.

Women and Heart Disease Statistics

  • No. 1 killer of women, and is more deadly than all forms of cancer combined
  • Causes 1 in 3 women’s deaths each year
  • Affects an estimated 43 million women in the U.S.
  • 90% of women have one or more risk factors
  • More women than men have died each year from heart disease

Source: American Heart Association

To learn more about heart care services at Mission Health, visit mission-health.org/heartmonth.