SUGAR LAND — Despite the perception that heart disease is a man’s disease, it’s the No. 1 killer of women, according to the American Heart Association. Millions of women die of heart disease every year, yet many are unaware of their risk for the condition. Women often put off taking care of their health — and this inaction can put an extra burden on their hearts.
One form of heart disease, a heart attack, can strike suddenly and with no advance warning. Just like men, women often experience the crushing chest pain and discomfort typically associated with a heart attack. However, women are somewhat more likely than men to experience other common heart attack symptoms and often ignore them.
“A misunderstanding of gender-related heart attack symptoms could cause women to delay getting care because they aren’t sure if they’re having a heart attack, panic attack or indigestion,” according to Kesavan Shan, MD, a board-certified cardiologist with Houston Methodist Cardiology Associates.
“It’s key to learn and watch for signs that something may be wrong — and if you’re ever in doubt, don’t hesitate to seek prompt medical care.”
How a woman’s heart attack may feel
You may already be familiar with classic heart attack symptoms for men, such as crushing chest pain that radiates down the left arm associated with sweatiness, paleness and shortness of breath. “Women are more likely than men to describe chest pain that is burning and sharp as well as experience extreme fatigue, pain in the neck, jaw, throat, abdomen or back,” Shan said.
“Breaking out in a cold sweat is also more common in women, as is lightheadedness,” Shan explained.
Risk factors offer clues
Managing your risk factors for cardiovascular disease is only possible if you know what they are, and routine screening tests can reveal the answers. At your next checkup, ask your doctor to assess your weight and BMI (body mass index), waist circumference, blood pressure, cholesterol and fasting blood glucose level. “These tests offer important clues to cardiovascular health as well as your overall health,” Shan said.
Heart attack not sole setback
With all the focus on heart attacks, some aren’t aware that cardiovascular disease can take many forms. Other heart problems include heart failure, in which the heart isn’t pumping as efficiently as it should; arrhythmia, a too-slow or too-fast heartbeat that can affect its ability to meet the body’s needs; and heart valve problems, which can impede proper blood flow through the heart.
Nearly all of these conditions are easily detectable with routine medical checkups,” Shan said. “It’s yet another reason why establishing an ongoing relationship with a primary care physician is so critical to your heart health.”
Menopause is too late to prepare
Women with heart disease risk factors, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and a family history, shouldn’t wait until menopause to start a dialogue with their primary care physician about a prevention regimen to keep them healthy. A recent survey published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that 74 percent of women in the United States had at least one heart disease risk factor, but only 16 percent told their doctor about it.
“Women have such a low prevalence of heart disease until menopause that often times, the topic is ignored until women are well into their 50s and 60s,” Shan said. “But those with risk factors need to be 10 years ahead of the game when it comes to prevention. Unfortunately, too many women already have heart disease by the time they’re tested.”