Heart disease is the leading cause of death among women in the United States. About one in five female deaths per year are directly related to heart disease. There is a common misconception that heart disease is a man’s disease. However, nearly just as many women die each year of heart disease in the United States.
Despite these statistics, heart disease can be manageable by knowing the signs and symptoms of a heart attack, managing stress and maintaining a heart-healthy lifestyle.
Heart Attack Symptoms Are Unique to Women
When it comes to a heart attack, the most common symptom for both men and women is chest pain or pressure. However, there are lesser-known symptoms that women are more likely to experience. Back or jaw pain, new or profound fatigue, shortness of breath, new or profound indigestion, nausea and vomiting are all symptoms to look out for.
Since heart attacks in women can have different and more subtle presentations than heart attacks in men, it is important to know the signs. If you believe you are having heart attack symptoms, it is important to seek immediate medical evaluation at the nearest emergency room by calling 911.
Heart attack or panic attack?
There is an association between stress and heart disease. The relationship lies in the way that emotional stress can raise blood pressure. Many women are managing busy home and work lives, making them more susceptible to experiencing long-term stress, which increases the stress hormone in the body called Cortisol. Cortisol, in turn, affects the way the body controls blood pressure and heart rate.
With increased stress, the likelihood of having a panic attack also increases. Many panic attack and heart attack symptoms overlap and are often almost identical. Women who suffer from panic attacks usually refer to the pain at the center of their chest as stabbing in nature, but women who suffer from a heart attack usually describe it as heaviness or pressure. Overall, it can be hard for patients to differentiate between a panic attack and a heart attack.
As a general recommendation, anyone who feels a sudden onset of severe chest pain or discomfort, should immediately call 911 and seek emergency evaluation.
Achieving a Heart-Healthy Lifestyle
Some risk factors for heart disease, such as family history and genetics, are outside of your control. But there are still many things that can be done to keep your heart healthy.
- Schedule your routine check-up. Scheduling an appointment with your primary care provider to help identify any potential heart issues and support your overall health is one easy way to help manage or reduce the risk of heart disease.
- Eat heart-healthy foods. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, lean meats, fish, whole grains and healthy oils are foods that help support your heart health. Limit red meat, packaged foods, and foods with lots of salt or sodium.
- Find a physical activity you enjoy. You’re more likely to keep up with exercise when it’s something you enjoy doing. Aim to exercise for at least 30 minutes, three times a week, unless otherwise directed by your doctor.
- Take steps to reduce stress. Managing busy home and work lives means women may be likely to experience long-term stress. Exercise, relaxation techniques and seeking professional help can help reduce and manage stress in healthy ways.
When making any lifestyle changes, it is important to remember that it is a marathon and not a sprint. Changes don’t happen overnight but making even one small, positive change can help reduce your risk of heart disease.
Keeping your heart healthy will improve your quality of life, help you stay active as you age and can potentially even prolong your life. This year let’s take steps to maintain a heart-healthy lifestyle and reduce the risk of heart disease because your heart is worth it!
Mohammed Shuaib, MD, is a cardiologist with ProMedica Physicians.