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Healthy Living

By Sheryl Kraft

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When a friend of mine called me to tell me that her neighbor's husband had suddenly and unexpectedly died of a heart attack, she was understandably upset. He was just shy of his 54th birthday.

As women, we fear things like breast and ovarian cancer and think of heart attacks as a "man's disease."

But it's not!

  • More women than men die of heart disease each year. In fact, it kills more women over 65 than do all cancers combined.
  • Heart disease is responsible for 37 percent of deaths in American women of all ages, according to the American Heart Association.
  • It doesn’t just affect just older women. It’s the third-leading cause of death in women 25 to 44 and the second-leading cause for women 45 to 64.
  • Mental stress and depression affect women’s hearts more than men’s (important to remember: depression is twice as common in women as in men)
  • Smoking is a greater risk factor for heart disease in women than in men

One reason more women than men die of heart disease might be because their symptoms of heart attack may be different. We don’t always exhibit the "classic" symptoms, like sharp, burning chest pain; and if we do, it's not always the most prominent and/or severe. Consequently, we may show up later in emergency rooms – after the damage has already set in.  And even if we do show up at the ER, there still tends to be some gender discrimination – our symptoms might be dismissed as stress and not taken as seriously.

I, for one, tend to downplay a lot of physical symptoms in general. But when it comes to matters of the heart, this is worrisome. I don’t want to be a Chicken Little, convinced that the sky is tumbling downward…yet I don't want to be an alarmist, either.  Yet everything I read stresses that women should absolutely not brush off their symptoms, convinced they’re just indigestion, anxiety, or our imagination.

Getting proper treatment – and quickly – can greatly improve your chance of survival and minimize heart damage. Speaking of which – don’t drive yourself to the hospital if you can help it. By calling 911, you’ll get the benefit of paramedics who are quick and trained to handle heart situations, able hook you up to the necessary meds before you even hit the ER.

Confusing? You bet. That's why I think it's important to learn the symptoms more common to us females, which are not always the typical made-for-TV clutch-at your-chest symptoms:

  • Neck, shoulder, upper back or abdominal discomfort (it may come and go)
  • Shortness of breath (caused by just walking around, not necessarily heavy exercise or exertion)
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Unusual fatigue (yes, we’re all going around exhausted half the time, but the kind that is just overwhelming and/or unusual)
  • Nausea or vomiting

Remember that if you do go to the hospital, make sure you ask the doctors if you are being ruled out for a heart attack. You might look healthy, or like you're not a typical heart attack patient, but that doesn't mean you're in the clear. Tests like an electrocardiogram and blood tests (like troponin, which measure the levels of injury to the heart muscle) should be performed.

So, you might be asking at this point, how do I keep my heart healthy in the first place?  (If you have gotten this far, thanks for staying with me. It’s too important a topic to ignore. Just a bit more…)

  • Maintain a healthy weight. Remember, obesity increases your risk (Losing just 3-5 pounds takes the load off your heart, lungs and brain)
  • Exercise (Hate the gym? Just walk. Move. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Don't be lazy - park your car all the way in the back of the parking lot. Dance around the house. Give up sitting too much.)  A very large Nurses' Health Study found that walking briskly about three hours a week reduced the risk of a heart attack 30 to 40 percent. It’s never too late, either – women who started walking at age 65 had the same benefit.
  • If you smoke – STOP. (Just do it. It’s simply not worth the risk.)
  • Discuss a daily aspirin with your doctor
  • Manage your blood pressure
  • Control your cholesterol
  • Reduce your blood sugar (Diabetes increases your heart attack risk)

And please, be a friend to another woman you love, and pass on this information.  It's too important to keep to yourself!

You might also want to read:

Heart Disease Awareness Month

All about heart disease

More about your heart health