I recently was enjoying dinner with a friend whom I hadn't seen in many months. After catching up on our latest news—our jobs, our children, our husbands—we got around to that popular topic: health. It seems that ever since my group of friends has ventured into our 40s and 50s, the topic of our health inevitably pops up. Some of the most common topics? Sports injuries, menopausal symptoms, sleep or lack thereof, the need for reading glasses … you get my drift.
What I didn't expect to hear was that my friend had recently spent a night in the hospital for observation after being taken by ambulance when she phoned 911 with chest pains. Her first thoughts were that the crushing pain she felt might be a pulled muscle (she had worked out that morning in the gym) or that it would pass.
She said she got up from her chair, tried walking around, then tried lying down. But the pain persisted. "I'm not an alarmist," she told me, "but the pain was so intense— and frightening—that I thought I might be having a heart attack." And since she was alone in her house, she was afraid she'd collapse and no one would ever know.
She was right to be concerned. Every 37 seconds, someone in the United States dies from heart disease. What's more, this year an estimated 647,000 Americans will suffer a heart attack, nearly half of those occurring without prior symptoms or warning.
MORE: Heart Disease Guide
That's concerning. When many of us think of heart disease and heart attacks, we may think of them as relating more to the male population. But it's important, as women, to know these facts: Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women, and deaths from heart attacks are six times greater than those from breast cancer each year.
What's even more disturbing and frightening is that women are less likely than men to survive a heart attack. Why? Perhaps one reason is that heart attack symptoms in women can be different than in men. As a result, women don't seek help quickly enough. And time counts.
Symptoms of heart attack in women include:
- Chest pain, pressure, tightness, heaviness or burning. Although these are the most common symptoms, many women never feel chest pain at all.
- Pain or discomfort in the neck, shoulders, lower jaw, arms, upper back or abdomen.
- Shortness of breath that lasts more than a few seconds.
- Feeling lightheaded, dizzy or faint.
- Breaking out in a cold sweat.
- Feeling like your heart is either beating very fast or is out of rhythm.
- Extreme fatigue.
Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. By the time my friend arrived at the hospital, her symptoms had subsided. Her EKGs were all normal, as were the blood tests used to check for abnormal proteins in the bloodstream that are released during a heart attack. She stayed overnight for observation based on her age (58) and symptoms. The next day, after a normal stress test, she was sent home.
My friend is happy to know that she has a strong and healthy heart. Her doctor assured her that she did the right thing by calling 911. It's always better to err on the side of caution. Too many heart attacks have occurred because women hesitated to reach out for help.
So, if it wasn't a heart attack, what was it? My friend may never know. Her doctor's educated guess is that it might have been related to a digestive problem. According to The Mayo Clinic, heartburn can include chest pain, as can a muscle spasm in your esophagus or the pain of a gallbladder attack. Health professionals caution, though, that you should call for help immediately if you get heartburn that seems worse or different than usual, especially if it occurs during exercise and is accompanied by sweating, shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness or pain traveling into your shoulders or arms.
If you think you're having a heart attack:
- Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately. Do not drive yourself to a hospital.
- Chew and swallow one uncoated adult aspirin (325 mg) or four uncoated baby aspirins (81 mg each). It can significantly improve your chances of survival. However, taking aspirin isn't recommended during a stroke or if you have aspirin allergies or certain other conditions. If you have doubts, ask the emergency operator or emergency responders whether you should take aspirin.
- Unlock the door, sit in a comfortable chair and wait for help to arrive.
- Keep the phone nearby.