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.

And lastly, so many women simply try to “tough it out.” If you experience any of the symptoms above, it’s worth the quick call to your health care provider to learn more.

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