A picture pops into most people’s heads when they hear the words “heart attack.”
That picture usually starts with an old man who is a drinker or a smoker. Maybe he’s outside working, or maybe he is having an argument and is really angry; either way, he stops what he is doing and grabs his chest. Soon, he is felling numbness or tingling down his left arm, eventually the pain intensifies (like an elephant sitting on his chest). Suddenly, grabs his chest and falls to the floor.
Heart attacks are considered the silent killer because the first sign of a heart attack is usually the heart attack itself. The hidden nature of heart attacks is made even more severe by the fact that most people (including doctors) have that exact picture of an old man in their head when they think of someone having a heart attack. That picture, while correct, doesn’t account for over 1/2 of the people who visit the emergency room with heart attacks.
What we and doctors need is a new picture that represents the most common heart attack victim.
Try this picture:
Instead of the old man, you need to put a woman in your picture, because since the mid 1980’s more women have died of heart attacks than men.
The woman in our new picture doesn’t smoke, but she might have high blood pressure or diabetes and she is often normal weight. She knows she doesn’t feel well, but cannot place what is wrong. Sometimes her neck or shoulder may hurt, but often she just feels sick to her stomach and may vomit. Occasionally she may feel short of breath.
All of these symptoms make her think she maybe ate something she shouldn’t have, but nothing a serious as a heart attack is entering her mind (because she too has the wrong picture in her head). She has no tingling down her arm, no elephant on her chest, no collapsing… just vague symptoms. Her chest may hurt enough that she calls or even stop by her doctor’s office, but she will often leave with a suggestion to take some antacids.
Even if she makes it to the hospital and they somehow think her problems may be heart-related, none of the common tests they run show anything wrong. For example, a common test for heart disease called an EKG is often normal looking even in a woman who has had a heart attack; other standard tests may also show nothing is wrong.
Women and Heart Disease
What doctors and the rest of the world are starting to understand is that heart disease is an entirely different condition in women than in men. Cardiovascular disease affects more women than men and is the leading killer of women in America.
Let’s look at why heart disease is such a serious problem for women:
- Most of the research done on heart disease has been performed on men.
- The leading cause of death of women 25 years and older is coronary artery disease (clogged arteries).
- While death rates from heart disease have dropped in men over the last few decades, they are increasing for women.
- More than 250,000 women in the United States die each year from heart disease (accounting for 40 percent of all deaths for women).
- Even if a woman reports chest pain, they are much more likely than men to have clear coronary arteries, this leaves researchers scratching their heads wondering what is going on.
- The standard treatments for blocked arteries are commonly balloon procedures or bypass and women are much more likely to have a poor outcome from these treatments than men. This may be due to the fact that women with heart disease are much more likely to have another disease such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or high cholesterol which makes any surgery more dangerous.
- Women, more than men, are likely to develop heart failure.
- Even blood tests that help diagnose heart attacks are often negative in women.
- Depression is a common in over 40 percent of women who have had a heart attack; depression typically occurs in only 20 percent of men.
It is obvious from the above that heart disease in women is different from heart disease in men.
The danger for women is threefold: They are more likely to have a heart attack than a man; they may not have typical symptoms if they do have a heart attack; and their doctors may not take them or their symptoms seriously.
Heart Health for Women
Remember, a heart attack can look like that picture of the old man, but other symptoms may include:
- Squeezing or feeling of fullness the chest
- Shortness of breath
The standard advice for heart disease applies to women, only more so: Remember to eat well, exercise, keep your weight normal, and don’t smoke. New research studies are starting to uncover the differences in heart disease in men and women, but taking control of your health is of vital importance for women.