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Healthy Aging > heart health

Heart Awareness 101

By Sheryl Kraft

Created: 02/08/2010
Last Updated: 01/13/2020

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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!

  • Heart disease is the leading cause of women, causing one in five female deaths.
  • Six times as many women die from heart attack, stroke, and other coronary heart diseases as they do from breast cancer.
  • Only about half (56%) of women recognize that heart disease is the number 1 killer.
  • More than 22 percent of women have some form of heart disease.
  • 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 5-10 percent of your body weight 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!


Thanks for these great reminders. I often think of myself as a kid, sitting in front of the television with a big bag of Wise potato chips, and consider how un-wise all those chips were for me to eat. I crave them still but remember my heart at the grocery store and turn away from the Cape Cod potato chip display.

Yes, when I think about all the mistakes I made when I was a kid, it's really scary. The potato chips are not such a "wise" choice, after all...

Sheryl, did you see the Super Bowl commercial about heart disease and women? It was very simple, but I thought it was very effective because its simplicity was a contrast to the flashier and funnier ads.

No, Susan, didn't see it. But thanks for pointing it out - I'll go and find it to watch now.

I'd heard that heart attacks in women manifest themselves very differently than in men--thanks for clarifying this. As women we do tend to downplay our aches and pains.

Kristen, Slowfood and Jennifer,

Thanks for your notes. It's hard to always remember that it's not just the men who get heart disease. But the reminders are always good to get us to pay (extra) attention, I think.

Oy! I really do brush things like that off, worrying about my husband rather than myself. Thanks for this reminder to think beyond what we believe to be typical.

Wow, what a sad story. To think that your friend's husband just dropped dead. That young. I have a friend whose dad died of heart failure on the operating table. "Buy me a bagel," he said to his son. And then he died from surgery. He was also in his early 50s.

But thank you for the reminder that this is NOT a man's disease. I always get the urge to exercise the minute I read your blog. This morning, though, I missed Baby Yoga class (and the walk to and from it) because the baby is sleeping and it seemed more important to let her rest than to wake her up precipitously.

Thanks for the symptom tips and reminders, Sheryl. We forget heart disease is so prevalent and preventable.

thanks for the timely reminder. though since i'm sick today i'm starting to get paranoid that it may be something dire, not just stomach flu!

OH, no. I hate to make everyone paranoid...including myself. I think there's a fine line where too much knowledge can into paranoia. But then again, it's not good to be ignorant, either. What I try to do is stick the knowledge in my back pocket and try not to take it out unless I truly feel I need it!

Excellent post, Sheryl.

Thanks for the reminder. It's important. And now I must go lose some weight...;-)

Really good and informative article, Sheryl! Good thing to write about because lots of women are in the dark about this disease.

Thanks for the reminder that things aren't the same symptom-wise between men and women. I know from experience that sometimes you have to push health care providers to take you seriously. From"I GUESS, we can do a CAT scan, but it will be a complete waste of time at your age" to "OK, we are going to take another CAT scan with contrast this time-we are seeing something unusual." Sigh.

Experience is the best teacher, isn't it? Pushing health care providers is something a lot of people are too intimidated to do, unfortunately.

Thank you for reminding us that heart problems are definitely women's problems.
Those statistics are surprising though, but they're also a motivator to get out there and do the things I must to keep myself and my loved one healthy.

Hi.I had my blood pressure read last week - it was 140 / 70. I have never had a reading over 120 / 70 before. Recently I have had occasional pains just below my ribs on the left hand side. Not sharp, but a definite pain.No pain in neck, arms etc. I am a white, post menopausal, 50 year old woman, weighing 52 kgs / 118 lbs ( 5 ft 5 inches ) who recently gave up smoking ( I smoked from the age of 40 on and off ) . I am relocating continents and lost my husband to cancer 4 years ago. Could this be stress related ?


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