Heart Disease

Place two fingers on the side of your neck, just under your jaw.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

Your heart beats 100,000 times a day to keep you alive – yet cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States.

Recognizing the signs and symptoms will increase your chances of surviving a heart attack, stroke, or some other some kind of cardiovascular event such as an arrhythmia.

But it’s not always that easy.

Why? Heart attacks often feel much different depending on whether you’re a man or a woman. Even the risk factors look atypical.

“There are definitely risk factors that can affect only women like hypertensive disorders of pregnancy, gestational diabetes, autoimmune disorders, depression, and history of radiation therapy or chemotherapy in patients with breast cancer,” said Dr. Karla Quevedo, a Lee Health cardiologist.

Pay attention to your symptoms

Women may suffer from nausea, dizziness, and fatigue – less common symptoms that are harder to recognize and easier to chalk up to a less serious condition.

Dr. Quevedo says the most frequent atypical symptoms reported by females are:

  • Neck, jaw, or shoulder pain
  • Upper back or abdominal discomfort
  • Heartburn, reflux, and indigestion
  • Severe anxiety or confusion

Other heart attack symptoms such as reflux, back pain, or just general fatigue are often mistaken as conditions that arise from normal aging, according to the American Heart Association.

The big question: why?

Why do these symptoms occur more in females?

“It may be because women tend to have blockages in the smaller arteries that supply blood to the heart — a condition called small vessel heart disease or coronary microvascular disease,” Dr. Quevedo says.

These symptoms also indicate a lack of blood flow and oxygen to the heart, Dr. Quevedo added -- unlike men who suffer more from plaque buildup in the large arteries around the heart that normally causes more traditional symptoms such as chest pain.

Remember: Women can also suffer from these traditional symptoms:

  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Dizziness

Prevention and Solutions

Many women don’t visit the doctor for atypical heart attack symptoms.

And that’s a problem because more women die every year of heart disease than men -- which means they need to stay extra vigilant in maintaining heart health and taking the necessary steps to prevent a heart attack or stroke.

Dr. Quevedo says women should lead a heart-healthy lifestyle before symptoms appear.

“You can reduce your risk for heart attack,” she says. “That starts with heart-healthy eating, being physically active, quitting smoking, managing stress, and managing your weight.”

Dr. Quevedo’s other tips include:

  • Maintain or reduce your weight to keep your body mass index (BMI) under 25.
  • If you have high cholesterol, have it treated.
  • If you have high blood pressure, have it treated.
  • If you’re managing your diabetes, maintain your hemoglobin A1C below 7.0.
  • If you smoke, avoid using oral contraceptives.
  • Consult with your doctor about taking aspirin if you’re 65 and older.
  • If you recently suffered a cardiovascular event, get a referral to a cardiologist and rehabilitation program.

Looking for a Cardiologist?

These tips can help prevent more than heart disease, too, and will set you up for success when it comes to leading a healthier lifestyle. To learn more about heart disease and treatments, visit www.leehealth.org/cardiaccare/ or call 239-495-4475.

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