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Know the Signs: Women and Heart Disease

I had an interesting conversation with one of my patients during her yearly exam. As usual, we were reviewing her medical history and she was talking to me about the heart attack that she had a few years ago. Her story is so compelling that I told her that many women could benefit from her experience. She gladly gave me permission to share her story. Some details are changed to protect her identity.

Let’s call her Wilda. Wilda is an active 60-year-old female. She works in a health care setting where she is responsible for moving patients. She is strong! One day she noticed this dull pain in her chest just at her bra line. She did not think much of the pain. She took an ibuprofen and the pain subsided. This was Thursday. This pain would come and go for the next few days. She continued to take ibuprofen and medicine for heartburn. Her symptoms improved so another day would go by. By Saturday, she just felt different. She began having chest pain again. This time she decided to check her blood pressure. It was “through the roof”. She asked her daughter to take her to the emergency room. She remembered getting to the hospital. The nurse started an IV. They began to run tests. A few minutes later the doctor told her she was having a heart attack. Wilda said, “Get outta here! There is no way I am having a heart attack.” The doctor, with a serious face, repeated the last words she remembered, “Yes, you ARE having a heart attack.” The next thing she remembered was waking up in the Intensive Care Unit.

Wilda never thought she would have a problem with heart disease. Everyone in her family usually dies of cancer. She did not have the typical symptoms of chest pain radiating down her arm. Her pain was annoying but it always resolved with ibuprofen. She really felt fine until the day she checked her blood pressure.

Wilda’s story is a great example of how heart disease presents differently in women. It is important that women know the signs. First, let’s talk a little about heart disease and women.

The Facts
Heart disease is the number one killer of women in the United States. The risk of heart disease increases with age. Every 90 seconds, a woman experiences a heart attack in the United States. According to the American Heart Association, in Indiana, an average of almost 24 women dies from heart disease and stroke daily. Risk factors for heart disease include obesity, smoking, diabetes, age, family history, stress and depression.

The Symptoms
Although chest pain or pressure is one of the most common symptoms of a heart attack, it is possible for a woman to have a heart attack without chest pressure or the infamous feeling of an elephant sitting on her chest. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health, there are 7 common symptoms of heart attack that all women and their families should know.
1. Chest pain or discomfort
2. Unusual upper body discomfort
3. Shortness of Breath
4. Breaking out in a cold sweat
5. Unexplained fatigue
6. Lightheadedness or sudden dizziness
7. Nausea
These symptoms may not seem severe but if left unnoticed the consequence can be fatal.

Now that you know, what do you do?
First, if you think you are having these symptoms, you need to seek immediate medical attention. Second, it is extremely important to know your risk factors and particularly those risk factors that you can change. If you smoke, talk to your health care provider about quitting. If you are overweight or obese, talk with your health care provider about healthy weight management and exercise programs.

Wilda first began having symptoms on Thursday. She did not seek medical attention until Saturday. She is alive and doing well but unfortunately this is not the outcome of many women in the United States. In the time it took me to write this blog, another woman had a heart attack. Share this blog with your friends and family members. You might just save a life.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health

American Heart Association

This article is written to provide information. It should not take the place of advice from a medical professional. If you think you are experiencing the symptoms that are discussed in this blog, see medical attention immediately.

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