Women and the Truth about Heart Health

Sound familiar? Be aware that these are some of the controllable risk factors for heart disease, the leading cause of death among American women over age 35. One out of every two women will die from heart disease, and currently 8 million women in the United States have heart disease. Nearly 500,000 women will die this year alone, and 50 percent of the deaths will be caused by a heart attack. 1

Despite these staggering numbers, only 10 percent of women believe they are at risk for heart disease. Sixty-two percent still believe that cancer is a woman’s greatest health threat and most still think that heart disease is a man’s disease.2 Women between the ages of 25 and 34 are least likely to identify heart disease as a major health threat–a dangerous attitude that may contribute to unhealthy habits that set the stage for heart disease as they age. Once women reach menopause, their individual risk of heart disease equals that of a man.3

Unfortunately, most women don’t make the connection between risk factors and their personal risk for heart disease. That’s why it is important to get an annual physical exam and know your “numbers” so you can take measures to reduce your risk of a heart attack.4

Maybe you have already made healthy modifications to your lifestyle. But let’s face it, when it comes to heart health, most women are a work in progress. Because lifestyle changes take time, it’s very important to recognize the symptoms of a heart attack and know when to seek treatment, just in case.

First, don’t let the absence of the classic symptoms of a heart attack fool you. Crushing chest pain, or extreme tightness or a squeezing sensation in the middle of the chest may or may not be present in a woman who is experiencing a heart attack. In fact, about a third of women do not have chest pain at all.5 Some women describe discomfort or burning in the lower chest, back, abdomen, neck, shoulder, arms or jaw. They may also have dizziness, unusual fatigue, new and unusual shortness of breath, sweating, nausea or simply believe they are having severe indigestion. One added symptom we hear from our patients is the feeling of fear and sense of doom–a sudden awareness that something is seriously wrong. The old adage of “trust your instincts” is advisable.

When is it really a heart attack? Even healthcare professionals agree it’s a challenge for women to determine whether or not they’re having a heart attack because the typical “there’s an elephant on my chest” is often absent.

Here are a few tips:

As a general rule, if you have any of the symptoms described above and if they come and go briefly on their own, or they stop when you stop the activity you are doing, you may be experiencing the warning signs of having coronary artery disease.6 This could lead to a heart attack in the future if left unrecognized and untreated. Please pay attention to these symptoms and make an appointment to see your physician.

On the other hand, if you have any of the above symptoms, and they persist for more than a few minutes and don’t go away when you stop what you are doing, or they happen when you are sleeping or resting, they may indicate that you are having a heart attack.7 The key is, you can’t make the symptoms stop and they don’t go away. If this is the case, seek medical attention by calling 911.

Unfortunately, women by their nature tend to keep symptoms to themselves, not wanting to bother, alarm or inconvenience others. Many take a wait-and-see attitude. But delaying treatment can be deadly. When a coronary artery is closed, a part of the heart muscle is deprived of oxygen and heart cells begin to die. The heart then becomes electrically irritable and may go into a sudden life-threatening irregular heartbeat. This is what causes most out-of-the-hospital deaths from a heart attack.

Remember that “time is muscle.” The longer the delay in seeking help, the greater the permanent heart damage. Obviously, the worst outcome is death. The second worst outcome is living with a very damaged heart for the rest of your life.

We have state-of-the-art emergency cardiac care available at Ingham Regional Medical Center around the clock, seven days a week. In fact, we have won two national awards for the treatment of heart attack patients. Our goal is to get blocked coronary arteries open as soon as possible. But even the best heart specialists and most aggressive treatment options can’t save a heart, or a life, if they are not utilized. So know your numbers, be aware of heart disease risk factors, recognize the symptoms of a heart attack and take action. Listen to your body and trust your instincts. If you think you might be having a heart attack, call 911. Don’t procrastinate and don’t be embarrassed of making a mistake.

Be your own best advocate and we will be there waiting for you if you need us.

Connie Allen, RN, BS, MBA, Director of Cardiac Services for Ingham Regional Medical Center

1-3  Nieca Goldberg, MD, Chief, Women’s Heart Program, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York, Women Are Not Small Men (New York: Ballantine Books, 2003) 34-35.

4“The Heart Truth” U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, National Institutes of Health – National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute; available from http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/hearttruth/whatis/index.htm (16 May 2007)

5 “Heart Healthy Women” 2005 Cardiovascular Research Foundation Publications; available from


(16 May 2007)

6-7 Goldberg; pp. 34-35.








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