Heart disease is the number one cause of death among women in the United States. It takes the lives of nearly twice as many women as all forms of cancer combined, yet many women know very little about their heart health.
It’s a common misconception that heart disease primarily affects men. While it is true that more men than women die from heart disease, the death rate among men has steadily declined during the past 25 years. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for women.
Moreover, women age 45 and younger are more likely than men to die within a year of their first heart attack. Among women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease, 64 percent have no prior symptoms.
“Even when women do have warning signs of a heart attack, they often are very different than the symptoms men experience,” says Poulina Uddin, MD, a cardiologist with Scripps Women’s Heart Center. “Both men and women may feel chest pain or break out in a cold sweat during a heart attack, but that is where most of the similarities end.”
Women tend to have subtler symptoms, and they may begin up to a month before the heart attack. Symptoms include:
- Fatigue or weakness
- Unusual tiredness
- Pressure, or tightness in the center of the chest
- Pain that spreads to the upper body, neck or jaw
- Unusual sweating, nausea or vomiting
- Sudden dizziness
- Shortness of breath
- Problems sleeping
Because many of these symptoms can be associated with common illnesses such as the flu, women are more likely to brush them off or assume something less serious is going on — and that can be a serious or even fatal mistake. If you experience these symptoms, don’t ignore them. Play it safe and call 911. The sooner you get treatment, the greater the chances of recovery.
Even if you think your heart is healthy, get screened for heart disease, especially if you have a family history of heart problems, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes.
“Women also have risk factors that don’t affect men, such as developing diabetes or high blood pressure during pregnancy,” says Dr. Uddin. “Also, hormones such as estrogen may play a role in protecting women from heart disease; after menopause, that protection disappears.”
Make an appointment with your physician to discuss your heart health and establish a baseline. Learn to adopt a heart-healthy lifestyle now and minimize your risk of problems in the future.