Women and Heart Attacks: Symptoms and Prevention

Chest pain, nausea and unusual fatigue: just a few of the many signs that you could be suffering from a heart attack. But would you know what to do?

Heart attacks claim the lives of thousands of American women each year, making it the leading cause of death among women in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health.

With February being American Heart Month, the OWH is raising awareness to help women fight these odds. Here are some of the first signs of a heart attack, as well as the need-to-know steps to take in heart attack prevention.

Symptoms of a heart attack and what to do

Nearly every minute, a woman in the U.S. has a heart attack, the OWH reports. For men and women, a heart attack is commonly recognized by pain or discomfort in the chest. However, women experience many of the "other" or less common symptoms, which can lead to misdiagnosis, according to the OWH.

The seven symptoms women commonly experience when having a heart attack are:

  1. Chest pain
  2. Cold sweats
  3. Dizziness or sudden light-headedness
  4. Nausea
  5. Shortness of breath
  6. Unusual fatigue
  7. Upper body pain

These symptoms can develop anywhere from hours to weeks before a heart attack, so don't shrug them off. Wait no more than five minutes to call 9-1-1 for assistance.

What causes heart attacks?

The more subtle and slower signs of heart attacks in women are biological, says Dr. Pamela Marcovitz, who works at the Ministrelli Women's Heart Center out of Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak.

In men and women, the rupture of an existing plaque, or blockage, in the artery is the most common cause, Marcovitz says, but in women, the more likely cause is plaque erosion, which happens more slowly.

Smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes and an unhealthy lifestyle cause plaque to grow – whereas smoking, a high-fat meal and a number of stress factors contribute to the sudden rupture of plaque, she says.

How prevent a heart attack and when to start

According to the National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease, heart disease affects women as young as 30 and 40 years old. Therefore, it's never too early start maintaining a healthy heart.

"Depending on one's age, one would take different steps," Marcovitz says. "The big one throughout life is a healthy lifestyle: eating foods low trans and saturated fats, limited sugar intake and getting enough exercise."

Reducing sodium in our diets is "one of the most powerful interventions," and can be done by avoiding processed foods, Marcovitz says, citing a New England Journal article. The study found that a reduction of dietary salt by 3 grams per day would reduce the annual number of new coronary heart disease cases by 60,000 to 120,000.

Regular exercise, she says, also lowers the risk of heart disease by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol.

Rather than signing up for a gym membership, Marcovitz encourages her patients to take brisk walks through the mall – and provides a list of malls that open early. Marcovitz adds that before starting any exercise program, you should check with your doctor.

In both women and men over 65, she says, a small baby aspirin every day has been shown to reduce the risk of a first heart attack.


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