Spotlight on Women’s Heart Health: Wise and wonderful women do have heart attacks
It happens far too often. A woman visits the doctor with vague pains and a funny feeling, or notices unusual heartburn and shortness of breath but thinks it might be a result of something she ate. She is waved away without tests. Later she finds out she has had a heart attack, but by then her heart is permanently damaged.
Such scenarios are frightening reminders that heart disease for women is real – and too often left undetected and untreated. Fortunately, the medical community now realizes that women’s heart attacks have different symptoms than men’s, and that women who have heart attacks are more likely to die from them. And women should realize that heart disease far outweighs breast cancer as a health risk. In fact, heart disease claims more women’s lives than the next seven causes of women’s death combined – about 500,000 women’s lives a year — according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
Now that the medical community is getting wise to the symptoms, women need to understand them better, too. If you’re a woman and you ever feel lingering chest pain, shortness of breath, or lightheadedness (or other symptoms on the sidebar on this page), it’s better to take action than to wonder. “You have to go and get yourself tested. Don’t just sit there,” says Florence Sheehan, MD, cardiology research professor at University of Washington. “You can’t afford to guess wrong.”
What is a heart attack? It’s when the blood supply to the heart muscle stops long enough to cause damage to the heart (at least 20 minutes or so), says Sheehan. “This damage is permanent. Heart muscle doesn’t regenerate, so that part of the heart doesn’t contract and do its normal function.” That’s why heart attacks are serious business, and can be fatal, even the first time. But, “The earlier you receive treatment for a heart attack, the more muscle tissue you can save,” she says.
John Hibbs, ND, naturopathic supervisor at Bastyr Center for Natural Health, agrees. “Physicians are now doing more tests, now that we’ve realized it’s better to err on the safe side.”
But before you get to that stage, there is much you can do to prevent heart disease. Cardiovascular disease is mostly preventable, according to AHA. Your risk increases if you have a family history of heart disease, are over age 55 or have diabetes, but everyone can control a number of risk factors. How? Keep your cholesterol and blood pressure levels in a normal range, quit smoking, maintain a healthy body weight, exercise regularly, and cultivate supportive relationships. Drink alcohol only in moderation and eat a healthy diet filled with whole grains and fruits and vegetables, with minimal saturated fat, cholesterol, sugar and salt. Eat plenty of antioxidant-rich foods, including carrots, squash, yams, peaches, apricots, spinach and broccoli, vegetable oils, wheat germ, leafy green vegetables, and fish. And, most importantly, educate yourself and others! For more detailed information about heart disease and ways to prevent it, visit www.hearttruth.gov and www.americanheart.org.
Writer: Sydney Maupin, staff writer
Sources: National Institutes of Health, American Heart Association