Taking it to Heart: What Women Need to Know about Heart Health
February is Heart Health Month, and in many households women will be urging members of their families to have screenings and live healthier lifestyles. Yet too few of these women will do the same for themselves.
The American Heart Association reports that only 13 percent of women view heart disease as a major health threat. Yet it is the number one killer of women over age 25, killing nearly half a million women each year, more than the next four most common causes of death combined. That means that one woman dies of heart disease every minute. Part of the problem is that the symptoms of heart disease and heart attack can be much different for women than for men. And those symptoms can be easily ignored or dismissed as something far less serious. In fact, less than 30 percent of women report having chest pain prior to a heart attack, and over 40 percent had no chest pain even during the attack, according to research by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
“In general, all of the symptoms of a heart attack that are common in men—including chest tightness, chest pain, shortness of breath, and pain that radiates in the jaw or down the left arm—are also common in women,” says Dr. Hemalatha Naganna, M.D., board certified Cardiologist and Chief of Cardiology at Carroll Heart Center. “However, women can also be prone to more subtle symptoms, such as nausea, heartburn, or other stomach pain, and shortness of breath without any chest pain. Many women seem to think that they aren’t at as high of a risk of having a heart attack as men, when in reality they are.”
In the NIH study, 95 percent of women had symptoms for a month or more before having a heart attack, but they did not recognize their symptoms as being signs of heart disease. For most women, unusual fatigue was the primary symptom—something easily ignored with the busy lives women lead. Sleep disturbances were the next most common symptom, followed by shortness of breath. Over one-third of women reported indigestion or anxiety in the month before their heart attack as well. And even during a heart attack, most women experienced symptoms easily explained away, with the most common being shortness of breath, weakness, fatigue, back pain, abdominal pain and dizziness.
“All women should know their risk factors when it comes to heart disease, including their family history, their blood pressure, their cholesterol level, and their risk of type-II diabetes,” says Dr. Naganna. “To keep their hearts as healthy as possible, women should exercise regularly, eat a heart-healthy diet, and have regular screenings with their physicians. All women over 40 should see their physicians once a year to have their blood pressure and cholesterol checked to monitor their health. And it’s important for everyone to always discuss any symptoms they might be experiencing or any changes in their health with their physician.”
–Carroll County Hospital
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