What Women Really Need to Know About Heart Disease
Ask women what health issue is more likely to kill them and a majority think they should be most concerned about breast cancer, not heart disease or having a heart attack. They’re then surprised to hear that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States today and is more deadly than all cancers combined.
Heart disease strikes more women than men, responsible for 1 in every 5 female deaths every year compared to 1 in 39 from breast cancer. This means a woman dies from heart disease every 60 seconds. Women who’ve had a heart attack are twice as likely as men to die within a year. Nearly two thirds of women who die suddenly from heart disease had no prior cautionary symptoms, or they just didn’t recognize the symptoms as signs of a heart problem.
While estrogen provides some protection for women against heart attacks, leading women to typically be older than men when they have their first (the average age for women is 70 vs. 66 for men), age is never a guarantee. So you need to know the signs, which unfortunately can be very subtle.
3 Subtle Symptoms Women Should Not Ignore
Thanks to the movies and TV, most of us think that having a heart attack means sudden onset excruciating heart pain that has people clutching their chest in extreme agony. While that can happen, our body typically sends us signs of impending heart trouble. They’re somewhat different for women and men, and for women the symptoms of a heart attack can be nuanced, subtle, feel like the flu and linger for days or even weeks.
While chests pains are still the most common sign of a heart attack in both women and men, the pains are seldom sudden and more likely to feel like heart-burn, acid reflux or pressure that creeps on over time. Women need to know these subtle symptoms that could be life savers, prompting you to see your physician immediately or call 911:
Pain in the jaw, neck, back or arms. Especially if the pain is dull or feels more like pressure, but is hard to pinpoint to a particular muscle or joint. If the pain comes on or worsens with exertion and stops afterwards, it’s a definite sign it may be heart-related. Other signs related to the pain:
- Men will feel pain only in the left arm. Women can have pain in either or both arms.
- However, jaw pain may be specific to the left.
- The pain can be sudden, not from exertion and may even wake you up in the night.
- Pain you feel in the upper or lower back typically starts in the chest before spreading to those areas.
Unusual or dramatic fatigue. Many women are tired all the time from their busy lives and responsibilities on the home front. But if you suddenly feel worn out and exceptionally tired after simple activities such as shopping, making the bed or even just walking to the bathroom, you need to pay attention. Feeling excessively tired after a regular exercise routine can also be your heart sending a signal of concern.
Shortness of breath and/or sweating. Most women as they age overlook these as symptoms of a heart attack. As older women start to exercise less and maybe pack on some pounds, shortness of breath seems normal or expected. And menopause causes hot flashes and sudden sweating. So it makes it tricky to understand when these symptoms are a sign something’s wrong with your heart. Pay particular attention to the following circumstances:
- When shortness of breath and sweating is accompanied by other symptoms, including chest pain, fatigue, nausea or dizziness.
- Stress sweat—that clammy, cold feeling—when there’s no reason or cause for the stress.
- A sudden shortness of breath or sweating with no exertion.
- Feeling breathless after exertion that continues to worsen
- Being short of breath that gets worse lying down but improves when you prop yourself up.
- Call 911 Immediately if you are feeling chest pains or any of these symptoms for more than 5 minutes.
Prevent Heart Disease
The first step to preventing heart disease is knowing your family’s heart health history and scheduling an appointment with your physician to find out your personal risk for heart disease.
Your MDVIP-affiliated physician will work closely with you on developing a healthy eating and exercise plan—both key in preventing heart disease. Controlling your cholesterol is key, as heart disease is often a result of atherosclerosis. This condition is caused by a build-up of fatty tissue in the arterial walls that form plaques which can burst, rupture the wall and cause blood clots.
And if you smoke, you need to quit. Your physician will help you do this, too, with an approach that can help lead to the best success for you. Just one year after quitting smoking, your risk of having heart disease halves.
This content was last reviewed February 2021.