While there are many similarities in the symptoms of heart disease in men and women, there are even more differences—differences that, if you’re a woman, could save your life if you know and recognize them. So before you pass that jaw pain off as a toothache, or that lightheadedness as something a snack or nap can fix, learn the symptoms.
Whatever you do, don’t ignore them.
Cardiovascular disease is now the leading cause of death in women. That includes women with obvious risk factors like being overweight or smoking, as well as seemingly fit women with silent, but just as deadly, risk factors like high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
Some researchers theorize that part of the reason the death rates are so high is that many women just don’t recognize the true nature of the threat. Unfortunately, most women with traditional or nontraditional symptoms attribute them to something else and don’t immediately seek medical attention. This leads to more women eventually arriving at the emergency department deep in the throes of a heart attack. This is one of the main reasons why, since 1984, more women than men have died each year from cardiovascular disease.
In hopes of raising awareness, the American Heart Association launched its “Go Red for Women” campaign, signified by the Red Dress, in 2004. The campaigns have ranged from staggering statistics and in-your-face realities to this side-splitting depiction of a modern day woman suffering a heart attack, featuring actress Elizabeth Banks. And though these efforts have significantly increased awareness of the problem, still only 50% of women believe that heart disease is their greatest health threat. Meanwhile, heart disease and stroke cause 1 in 3 deaths among women each year—more than all cancers combined.
So what should we, as women, do?
Know the symptoms. Women can certainly experience that classic chest pain like “an elephant sitting on your chest,” just like men typically do. However, women are more likely than men to experience other symptoms of a heart attack, such as fatigue, chest pressure, nausea and vomiting, back pain and jaw pain.
Know your numbers, including cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure. An astounding 90% of women have one or more risk factors for developing heart disease, and many don’t even know it.
Know your family history. If an immediate relative has had a heart attack, stroke or has known heart disease, then there’s a likelihood you may as well—even if you exercise and eat right. By all means, keep up the heart-healthy activities, but also keep tabs on the potential underlying issues.
The more a woman knows about heart disease, the better chance she has of beating it. In an effort to educate, screen and treat the women of the Upstate for heart disease, GHS has launched a Women’s Heart Center. It’s the first of its kind in the Upstate and one of fewer than 50 nationwide.
The GHS Women’s Heart Center is exclusively dedicated to the screening, prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease in women. It features an early-detection screening with specific emphasis on prevention, risk assessment, lifestyle management and raising awareness. The program will target woman ages 35-65 who are interested in decreasing their risk of potential future cardiovascular disease. For more information on the program, call (864) 455-6977 or visit our website.
As a mother, wife, daughter, sister and friend, I try to do all that I can to be present for those that I love. I know that every woman feels the same. Therefore, it is imperative that women take charge of their heart health today, not only for themselves but for the future of their loved ones.
By committing to a heart healthy lifestyle today, the life you save may be your own or even a loved one whom you have inspired to do the same!
This blog previously ran as an op-ed in The Greenville News on February 19, 2017.
Andrea Bryan, MD, FACC, is a cardiologist with Carolina Cardiology Consultants. She is board certified in both internal medicine and cardiovascular disease and is currently the medical director of cardiovascular prevention and the GHS HeartLife Cardiac Rehabilitation Program.