Heart disease differs in women and men
Heart disease historically has been viewed as a “male disease,” but now we know better. In fact, heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women. Yet, only 1 in 5 women believe that it is her greatest health threat.
This Friday kicks off National Heart Month and marks the 10th anniversary of the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign, which has helped increase awareness of heart disease in women from symptoms to prevention.
Since the Go Red for Women campaign began in 2004, the AHA estimates that it has helped save more than 627,000 lives. Over the next eight years, the goal is to reduce the number of cardiovascular deaths among all Americans by 20 percent.
It’s a realistic goal especially if women and men recognize heart attack symptoms and seek emergency treatment in a timely manner. Unfortunately, many women still believe that their gender lowers their heart attack risk; they too often dismiss the warning signs and fail to act quickly enough on them.
A heart attack occurs when a clot forms in the artery, preventing the flow of blood to the heart muscle. If the blood flow is not restored quickly, the affected part of the heart muscle begins to die.
Physicians often use the phrase “time is muscle” because the amount of damage to the heart muscle depends, in part, on the time between injury and treatment. Minimizing damage to the heart can improve recovery, prevent future complications and, in many cases, save lives.
Some heart attacks are sudden and intense, but most start slowly with mild pain and discomfort. As a consequence, people fail to recognize the warning signs and postpone the need for help. When in doubt, call 9–1-1. Don’t feel embarrassed if it is a false alarm.
We now know that women and men often experience heart attack symptoms differently. A primary purpose of the Go Red for Women campaign is to raise awareness about the warning signs in women.
Heart attack symptoms for women and men include chest discomfort, discomfort in other areas of the upper body, shortness of breath, nausea, lightheadedness and breaking out in a cold sweat.
Pressure that feels like an elephant sitting across the chest is a classic sign of a heart attack, but women are more likely than men to experience the other symptoms without chest pressure. These symptoms also can include fatigue, sleep disturbances and indigestion. In some cases, women might experience shortness of breath that feels like they just ran a marathon, or upper back pressure that feels like a rope has been tied around them.
A heart attack strikes someone in the United States every 34 seconds, but many women especially are unsure of the symptoms. That’s why the Go Red for Women campaign is so important – to highlight the risk among women and let them know about the subtle and sometimes confusing warning signs that characterize their gender.
Heart Month is a great time to make sure you and/or the important women in your life know those symptoms and call 9–1-1 if they experience them.
Dr. Abraham C. Parail is a board-certified interventional cardiologist and an active member of the Grady Memorial Hospital medical staff.