February is American Heart Month. Heart disease is the number 1 killer in women and is more deadly than all forms of cancer, causing 1 in 3 deaths each year. February 7th is National Wear Red Day to raise awareness in the fight against heart disease in women.
Heart Attack Symptoms in Women
There are a several misconceptions about heart disease in women, and they could be putting you at risk. The American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women movement advocates for more research and swifter action for women’s heart health for this very reason.
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.
“Although men and women can experience chest pressure that feels like an elephant sitting across the chest, women can experience a heart attack without chest pressure, ” said Nieca Goldberg, M.D., medical director for the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at NYU’s Langone Medical Center and an American Heart Association volunteer. “Instead they may experience shortness of breath, pressure or pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen, dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting, upper back pressure or extreme fatigue.”
Even when the signs are subtle, the consequences can be deadly, especially if the victim doesn’t get help right away. These are the most common heart attack symptoms in women:
- Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
- Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
- Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
- Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
- As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.
If you have any of the above-noted signs, don’t wait more than five minutes before calling for help. Call 9-1-1 and get to a hospital right away.
Living With Heart Disease
No matter what you call it – heart disease, cardiovascular disease, or coronary heart disease – it means there is a plaque buildup in the walls of your arteries. As the plaque builds, your arteries narrow, making it more difficult for blood to flow and creating a risk for heart attack or stroke. Women are also diagnosed with heart disease when an irregular heartbeat or heart valve problems are present.
What To Do After Your Diagnosis
1. Drop the guilt. Women pride themselves on being able to do it all. But sometimes, you need to lean on others; and when you’ve been diagnosed with heart disease, that’s the time to do it.
2. Realize that it’s okay to feel vulnerable. Reach out to other women who share your diagnosis and start to build a personal support team. Know when you need to let go of some control and let others take care of you. It may be a struggle at first, as it was for survivor and nurse, Eva Gomez. Eva hated feeling that she wasn’t in control as she placed her life in the hands of her fellow medical staff. But once she understood that fear and feeling helpless is normal, she welcomed the support of family and friends. And it was that support that helped her realize that she had a second chance at life.
3. Join support groups. There’s no reason to cope with heart disease on your own. In addition to local support groups, you can also connect with other women through the Go Red For Women heart match program. Share your story, then find someone like you. Click here to connect online.
4. Believe in yourself. Yes, the diagnosis is going to create feelings of depression, anger and fear. But it’s important to process those feelings and then get past them.
Heart Disease Prevention
You have the power to reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke. Use these tips to help set you on a heart-healthy path for life.
Chose a healthy lifestyle
A healthy lifestyle is yours to follow if you want it. Your diet, weight, physical activity and exposure to tobacco smoke all affect your cholesterol level and heart disease risk — and these factors may be controlled by:
- Eating a heart-healthy diet
- Enjoying at least 150 minutes a week moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity, and more than two days a week muscle strengthening activities
- Avoiding tobacco smoke
Know your fats – Knowing which fats raise LDL cholesterol and which ones don’t is the first step in lowering your risk of heart disease. Make sure you understand the difference between good fat and bad fat.
Cook heart-healthy – It’s not hard to whip up recipes that fit with the low-saturated-fat, low-cholesterol eating plan recommended by scientists to help you manage your blood cholesterol level and reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke. There are many heart-healthy cookbooks and websites to help.
Understand drug therapy options – For some people, lifestyle changes alone aren’t enough to reach healthy cholesterol levels or control your heart risk. Your doctor may prescribe medication. You may need to take cholesterol-lowering drugs or blood pressure medications.
Avoid common misconceptions – Knowledge is a key to improving your health by knowing how to truly live a heart-healthy life. Here are a few ways to ensure your heart disease knowledge is up to speed:
- Learn the common myths versus facts about stroke.
- Understand the different types of cholesterol.
- Make sure you’re up to speed on the new heart health guidelines.
Work with your doctor – You and your healthcare professionals each play an important role in maintaining and improving your heart health. Know how to talk with your doctor about your cholesterol levels and be sure you understand all instructions. Follow your plan carefully, especially when it comes to medication — it won’t work if you don’t take it as directed. Whether you’ve been prescribed medication or advised to make diet and lifestyle changes to help manage your cholesterol, carefully follow your doctor’s recommendations. Heart risk assessments are recommended by the American Heart Association for the following individuals:
- People ages 40 to 79 should have their 10-year risk calculated every four to six years
- People ages 20 to 59 should receive a lifetime risk assessment
Take the Go Red Heart CheckUp – The Go Red For Women Heart CheckUp helps you on your path to improving your heart health by assessing your risk and offering healthy lifestyle information. In addition to your doctor’s examination, let us help you assess your risk for heart disease and stroke.