Heart disease claims the life of one in three American women, and accounts for more than 400,000 deaths in American women each year. That’s more than the deaths from cancer, accidents and diabetes in women combined. Approximately one woman every minute dies of a heart attack, and according to the American Heart Association, approximately 80 percent of these deaths can be prevented through education and lifestyle modification.
“Just as the differences between men and women are vast, so are the differences in how they experience heart disease,” said Blount Memorial cardiologist Dr. Jane Souther. “Women are less likely to experience classic signs or symptoms of a heart attack relative to men. In fact, women can feel perfectly fine until the day they experience a heart-damaging blockage, and when they do experience heart disease symptoms, the symptoms may be vague. Although women can experience the ‘elephant-on-the-chest’ pain that men often do, they’re much more likely to experience less pronounced discomforts, such as pain in the back, neck, jaw, shoulder or under the arm. Women also are more likely to experience abdominal discomfort, nausea or vomiting. These symptoms often are confused with indigestion, a virus or the flu. Other symptoms such as shortness of breath or a feeling of shallow breathing, sudden and unexplained sweating, sudden spells of dizziness or light-headedness, palpitations, or unusual physical fatigue, weakness, or anxiety can be warning signs for heart attack, as well. These symptoms may occur individually or simultaneously; they can be sudden and intense or strike in varying degrees before becoming acute,” she explained. “Women are more likely than men to die after a heart attack,” she added.
“It is extremely important for women to understand and assess their risk for heart disease,” Souther said. “Women with diabetes are more likely to develop heart disease than men who have diabetes. Also, because diabetes can change the way you feel pain, you're at greater risk of having a silent heart attack or a heart attack without symptoms. Stress and depression affect women's hearts more than men's. Depression makes it difficult to maintain a healthy lifestyle and follow recommended treatment. Smoking, too, is a greater risk factor for heart disease in women than it is in men, as is a lack of physical activity. Low levels of estrogen following menopause also pose a significant risk of developing disease in smaller blood vessels, and high blood pressure or diabetes during pregnancy can increase the mother's long-term risk of high blood pressure and diabetes, all of which can make women more likely to develop heart disease,” she explained. “Inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus also can increase the risk of heart disease in both men and women,” she added.
Souther says, as with men, women can greatly reduce their heart disease risk factors by making lifestyle changes. “Quitting smoking or getting more aerobic exercise, such as walking, running, swimming, cycling and dancing, will cut the risk of heart disease significantly,” she said. “Eating a diet low in fats and high in fiber and vitamins will help, too, and a combination of proper diet and exercise will help to bring cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure to safe levels. Generally speaking, women respond better to preventative measures than men and have a tendency to stick to a program,” she added.
A heart attack happens when blood flow in an artery to the heart is blocked by a blood clot or plaque, and the heart muscle begins to die. “If you get help quickly, though, treatment can save your life and prevent permanent damage to your heart,” Souther said. “Any unusual feeling of something wrong above the waist should be a signal to get to the emergency room. Call 911 right away. Do not try to drive yourself. Rapid care can save your heart from receiving extensive damage,” she added.