Think about the following statistics:
- 370,000 women have heart attacks every year;
- One in three women dies of heart disease – that’s approximately one woman every minute;
- Ninety percent of women have one or more risk factors for developing heart disease;
- Only 1 in 5 American women believe that heart disease is her greatest health threat.
A heart attack is usually a sign of heart disease. Heart disease refers to any problem that affects the heart’s ability to function normally. This could be an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) or a heart defect since birth. However, coronary artery disease (CAD) is the most common type of heart disease. It occurs when the heart’s arteries become clogged with fatty deposits (plaque), restricting blood flow. One out of every six women between ages 60 and 79 have coronary artery disease. If the artery becomes completely blocked, a heart attack may be the result.
Unique to Women
Women tend to have heart attacks later in life than men. The average age of having a first heart attack for a woman is 70.3 while for men the risk for heart disease accelerates at age 45. While the normal causes of heart disease such as smoking, poor diet and obesity are common between both genders, women in particular should pay extra attention to their cholesterol levels. Women’s risk factors go up once they go through menopause because after menopause, estrogen production declines, which may decrease HDL or ‘good’ cholesterol and increase the LDL or ‘bad’ levels.
Long before having a heart attack, some women experience chest pain — also known as angina pectoris. With angina pectoris, women may feel uncomfortable pressure, fullness or pressure in their chest after exercising. It usually goes away with rest, but it’s linked to coronary artery disease. This is a good opportunity to see a healthcare provider for a heart evaluation
Women may experience different heart attack symptoms than men. While chest pain is the most common symptom, women are more likely to experience more subtle signs such as:
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Tooth or jaw pain
- Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, back or stomach
- Shortness of breath, with or without chest discomfort
- Breaking out in a cold sweat
- A sense of doom
What to do?
As you can see, some of these symptoms seem innocent. As a result, women may misinterpret them as signs of stress or another sickness. However, if you think you are having a heart attack, call 911 right away. Women are less likely to call 911 when experiencing symptoms of a heart attack themselves. It simply doesn’t occur to them to do so. If you are experiencing the above symptoms get help. The heart is a muscle and every minute it is deprived of life-giving blood and oxygen, the more damage will be done—even to the point of death.
The good news is you can avoid having a heart attack — even if your family has a history of heart disease. If you are smoking, stop now; better yet, don’t start. Get plenty of exercise, eat a heart-healthy diet, watch your weight, know what your cholesterol and blood pressure numbers are and go to the doctor for regular check-ups. These are great ways to help keep your heart safe.
To learn if you are at risk for cardiovascular disease, take our free online heart health assessment at www.providence.org/heart-quiz.
Gerrie Gardner is a board certified Providence Medical Group cardiologist who sees patients in Lynnwood, Mill Creek, Monroe and Everett. To make an appointment with Dr. Gardner or one of Providence Medical Group cardiologists, call (425) 316-5490.