According to the American Heart Association, heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States. “We tend to think of heart disease as a mostly male problem,” explains Dr. Smriti Deshmukh, a cardiologist at White Plains Hospital. “As a result, women who might be experiencing signs of a heart attack often don’t seek immediate care.”
In fact, it is common for women to wait more than six hours after that first symptom before going to the emergency department, according to the AHA.
What are the signs of a heart attack in women?
Women are tough! Between family and career obligations, they are used to pushing through random discomfort and seemingly common ailments like acid reflux or the flu to get the job done. This is perhaps one reason why many women delay getting to the emergency department in time to prevent damage to their hearts. While chest pain is still the primary symptom of heart attack in women, the sensation will often feel more like tightness or weakness compared to the sudden onset of crushing pain often dramatized in movies. Surprisingly, chest pain is absent in 43% of women having heart attack.
Other symptoms include:
- Discomfort in neck, jaw or shoulder
- Stomach issues
- Back discomfort or pain
- Pain in one or both arms
- Nausea, vomiting
- Feeling tired, light-headed or dizzy
Women are generally much better about taking care of their health needs and getting proper screenings than men, which is why it’s ironic that they fall behind when it comes to heart disease. According to the AHA, almost two-thirds (64%) of women who die suddenly from coronary heart disease had no warning signs. “In past ten years, there has been tremendous advancement in the technology used to diagnose heart issues,” notes Dr. Deshmukh. Echocardiology has become the backbone of cardiovascular workups, using sound waves to create pristine 3D images of your heart muscle and valves, she adds.
Lower Your Risk
Dr. Deshmukh suggests annual checkups with a physician every year staring at age 40 or sooner if you have a family history of heart disease. This includes checking blood pressure and blood work to screen for diabetes and other issues that may be raising a red flag on your cardiovascular health.
Should that happen, take heart: 80% of cardiac events can be prevented through lifestyle changes, say the experts. Having a healthy heart means cutting out some bad habits and adopting a few other good ones.
Dr. Deshmukh says overall weight loss is definitely one of those goals, but not the primary one. “I focus more on physical activity with my patients,” she says. “Once they get that endorphin release of being more active, they automatically adjust their diet to complement increased physical activity. That mood elevation from exercise motivates you to make better choices with food.”
- Keep moving. According to AHA guidelines, we should all be striving for 150 minutes of aerobic exercise every week, she says. That breaks down to about 30 minutes, 5 days a week, but no gym membership is required. Activities like gentle walking and yard work count, too. “It’s important to remember to keep moving throughout the day,” says Dr. Deshmukh. “Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Park your car as far as you can, because that spot will always be open.”
- Quit smoking. Doing so cuts your risk of coronary heart disease in half! (In addition, a recent study showed it’s never too late to quit, since healthy remaining cells in the lungs can help to rebuild some of the damage to the lining and reduce cancer risk.) Speaking of which…
- Sitting is the new smoking! Having a sedentary lifestyle is considered to be extremely dangerous to your overall health. “Set a timer on your phone or watch so every hour you’re up and moving,” says Dr. Deshmukh. “All of it really adds up, and eventually it will become habit.”
- Eat natural, whole foods. The Mediterranean style diet is one of the most highly recommended diets for a strong and vital heart. Known for its healthy fats, this diet includes lots of nuts, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and fish (with high amounts of omega-3s).
While it’s frightening to know that someone dies of a heart attack every 43 seconds, this statistic can be reversed. Know the symptoms of heart disease, get screened, and practice prevention.
Dr. Smriti H. Deshmukh, MD, FACC, is a cardiologist and echocardiologist with White Plains Hospital Physician Associates, seeing patients at 33 Davis Avenue and 2 Longview Avenue, Suite 500, in White Plains. For information or to make an appointment, call (914) 849-7105.