Many people believe that heart attacks are only a problem for older men, even though heart disease is the number one killer of women in the U.S. Over the past several years, rates of death from heart disease in women under the age of 55 have been increasing.
"A heart attack occurs when a vessel carrying blood to the heart muscle becomes blocked," explained Family Medicine physician Sarah Bendel, D.O. "For both men and women, common warning signs of a heart attack include chest pain that is not relieved by rest, as well as a sensation of pressure or squeezing in the chest. Some people may feel discomfort for several minutes or more, or the sensation may come and go. In addition, the pain may travel to their arms, neck, or jaw."
Some Differences Between Men and Women
"Although both men and women commonly have pain or discomfort in the middle of their chest during a heart attack, women are more likely than men to experience a variety of other symptoms that they may dismiss as insignificant," she added. "These symptoms may include fatigue, heartburn, indigestion, dizziness, nausea, back pain or trouble breathing.
"In addition, women are less likely to experience chest pain that is heart attack-related, and are more likely to feel fatigue or nausea prior to a heart attack. They may also feel pain high in their abdomen or chest, or in their back, neck or jaw. Whatever the nature of the pain, it does not have to be obvious for it to signal an impending heart attack."
As a general rule, if a heart attack is suspected and any of these symptoms are present, emergency medical help should be sought immediately. Women are less likely to survive a first heart attack and are more likely than men to experience a second heart attack within one year.
Men and women also experience many of the same traditional risk factors for heart disease, which include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, smoking, diabetes, and a family history of heart disease. However, other factors may contribute to the development of heart disease in women, such as:
- Metabolic syndrome (a combination of fat around the abdomen, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and high triglycerides)
- Being an African-American female
- Pre-eclampsia (or "toxemia") during pregnancy
- Auto-immune diseases
Preventing Heart Disease
Ideally, heart disease prevention should begin as soon as possible. "A woman should begin working with her doctor during her reproductive visits and through the onset of menopause, to assess her risks for heart disease and develop a heart-healthy plan, including exercise, a low-salt diet, and regular checks of lipids, blood sugar and blood pressure," Dr. Bendel advised.
"Women tend to neglect their own health and focus more on their families. However, there are some simple lifestyle steps that women can take to reduce the risk of heart disease."
Exercise: "A sedentary lifestyle is a risk factor for heart disease, because it limits the amount of exercise the heart and blood vessels receive. A physically active lifestyle increases the heart's ability to pump blood efficiently. In addition to promoting weight loss and increasing levels of good cholesterol, exercise decreases your blood pressure overall. Most of us do not get the ideal 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise."
Healthy weight: Other lifestyle changes to reduce a woman's risk of heart disease include not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, and eating a heart-healthy diet. Obesity is considered a major risk factor for heart disease, according to the American Heart Association, and two out of every three women in America are obese. People who are more than 20 pounds over their ideal bodyweight are more likely to develop heart disease, even if they have no other risk factors. Obesity also increases fat around the heart and other organs, which compresses those organs.
"People do not understand how much extra strain their increased weight poses for their heart," Dr. Bendel concluded. "Excess weight also raises blood pressure, cholesterol, and decreases the body's ability to process sugar appropriately. In addition, if you have a medical condition that is a contributing factor for heart disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes, make sure to follow your doctor's advice, take your prescription medicines appropriately, and keep your blood pressure or blood sugar under control."
Sarah Bendel, D.O. is a Family Medicine physician, who has obtained her Advanced Women's Health Fellowship at the University of Tennessee. Dr. Bendel is currently accepting appointments, which are available by calling the North Lima Care Center at (330) 549-9680. The North Lima Care Center is located at 11993 South Avenue in North Lima, and is operated by the SCH Professional Corporation, a service of Salem Community Hospital.