Not All Heart Disease Symptoms Are The Same – Know The Signs

The stereotypical heart patient is a middle-aged man, but would it surprise you to know heart disease is actually the No. 1 killer in women?

If you answered “yes,” you’re not alone.

Since only 1 in 5 women see heart disease as their biggest health threat, it’s time that we get the facts:

  • Heart disease causes one third of all women’s deaths each year. This translates to approximately one heart-related fatality every minute.
  • Nine in ten women have one or more heart-disease related risk factors.
  • By raw numbers, more women have died from heart disease than their male counterparts. This trend began over 30 years ago (1984), and the survival gap is widening every year.
  • Women can experience different symptoms of heart disease than men, a fact that can lead to confusion and costly delays in seeking treatment.

So what can the signs look like?

We recently read an article in the Wall Street Journal: I Had No Idea I Was Having a Heart Attack’: For Women, the Signals Often Aren’t Clear, written by Robin Olivera, a retired cardiac nurse. In the article she vividly remembers her very own heart attack experience; here’s a brief snippet:

On a sunny day in Bellevue, Wash., in June 2011, I had just completed a workout class when I experienced a bizarre sensation of intense, full-body muscle fatigue. I broke into a bone-chilling sweat. My upper left arm throbbed, a deep ache next to the bone. I was heaving for air at a rapid clip. I grew nauseated. A fist was pressing through my chest to my spine. I was 56 years old, an exercise enthusiast, a nonsmoker and a retired cardiac-care nurse. And yet I had no idea that I was having a heart attack.

It felt nothing like I’d imagined. It turns out that it’s hard to recognize a heart attack as it happens. What I didn’t understand until much later was that a deposit of plaque had ruptured in my right coronary artery and caused a clot to form, depriving my heart—and brain—of oxygen. I knew something was wrong, but not what, and it was difficult to think clearly. Was it serious? It just seemed weird. I should have asked for help, but instead I headed to the parking garage.

There my symptoms eased as swiftly as they’d arrived. I had recently stopped taking a prescription medication for heartburn, and I concluded that I had suffered rebound indigestion. I called my husband, a physician, and asked him to run to the store to get groceries for dinner. I told him that I’d felt bad for a few minutes. Stopping that drug was rough, I said. If that’s what a heart attack feels like, I added, it sure does hurt. I made light of it, raised no alarm, gave no indication of my suffering.

On the way home, my symptoms returned in force. Now I had to merge onto a major highway, then a second, and navigate through rush-hour traffic. I draped myself over the steering wheel, fighting for air. My eyesight narrowed. Instead of pulling to the side, I drove on, gripped by a primal urge to reach home. Clarity of judgment had evaporated, a dangerous symptom of lack of oxygen.

In an effort to educate our community, here are a few symptoms/signs to keep in mind:

  • Neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back or abdominal discomfort
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain in one or both arms
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Unusual fatigue

We urge you to invest a few valuable minutes to learn more about the causes and symptoms of heart disease in women – check out this comprehensive article courtesy of Go Red for Women. Or if you have a subscription to the Wall Street Journal and want to read Ms. Olivera’s full article, click here.

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