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Know your heart: Women and heart disease

Heart attacks don’t just happen to older men. In fact, heart attacks caused by coronary artery disease are the leading cause of death for American women.

The statistics are startling: one in four American women die of heart disease. This is a much higher number than the deaths attributed to the commonly feared killers such as breast cancer.

As the symptoms of heart disease in women are unique, consulting an expert is recommended. Your doctor can help you understand and manage your risk factors for heart disease. This can help reduce your future risk by making appropriate interventions early on in life, to prevent the disease from occurring or progressing.

Your doctor may recommend screening tests like a CT scan for coronary artery calcium scoring. This test evaluates for calcium buildup in the arteries which appears as white deposits on the scan, suggesting a possible blockage. Depending on your risk factors and symptoms, a stress test may also be ordered to evaluate for obstructive blockage in the heart arteries. Lifestyle modifications, medication therapy or procedural intervention may then be recommended to reduce your overall risk for a heart attack.

Know your risks

Even though men and women may experience heart attacks differently, the risk factors are quite similar.

The top 10 risks for women are:

  • High blood cholesterol levels
  • High blood pressure
  • Family history of heart disease
  • Physical inactivity
  • Tobacco use
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Stress
  • Birth control pills
  • Excessive alcohol intake

Many experts suggest that the increased heart attack rates among middle-aged women in the U.S. are a direct result of unhealthy lifestyle choices. For example, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, estimate that about 35 percent of U.S. women are obese, making them more likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease. Eating a low calorie Mediterranean diet and regular structured exercise may reduce your weight and improve your overall heart health.

Know the symptoms of a heart attack

As symptoms can be different for men and women, many women don’t realize that they are experiencing a heart attack until it is too late.

Unlike men, who often experience the feeling of “an elephant sitting on their chest,” women may demonstrate less-obvious symptoms, causing them to mistake a heart attack for a less life-threatening condition such as acid reflux, a pulled muscle or flu. If the symptoms worsen with activity and are recurring or persisting, it is important to seek more care or discuss these symptoms with a health care provider.

Common symptoms of heart attacks in women include:

  • Pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the chest
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • Shortness of breath, with or without chest discomfort
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Lightheadedness, dizziness or fainting
  • Weakness
  • A feeling of heartburn, indigestion or acid reflux
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat

If you’re having any of these symptoms, know that time is critical in the survival and recovery of any cardiac event. If you think you or someone is having a heart attack, call 911 immediately. Do not waste time calling your doctor or an Uber. Even worse, avoid the risk of an accident by driving yourself or the patient to the hospital.

When you call emergency medical services for transportation, they will provide immediate cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and defibrillation if needed, conduct an electrocardiogram and send the results to the emergency department prior to your arrival. When you get to the hospital, a specialized team will be ready and the right care will be put into action immediately. Some studies suggest that only 30 percent of women would call 911 even if they thought they were having a heart attack. The reason that they cited for not calling 911 was that they would not want to bother anyone. This often causes delay in care and poor outcomes for female patients.

Avoid being a victim to this leading killer for both men and women and seek the appropriate help as soon as you realize that your symptoms may be due to heart disease. Invest in your and your family’s health and have a low threshold to be screened for heart disease, if you have any significant risk factors or a family history of early heart disease.

These efforts should help lower the risk for heart disease, which causes loss of health and life.

For more on UPMC Pinnacle’s services for women and heart disease, click here.

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