February is American Heart Month, which makes it the perfect time to remind yourself of the key role this muscle plays in your health and how to protect it.
According to the Center for Disease Control, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both women and men in the United States. And, while it is more common among women ages 65 and older, it is the third leading cause of death among women ages 25-44.
Although heart disease is often perceived as a “man’s disease,” that’s not that case. Heart attacks are a real threat to women. Unfortunately women sometimes don’t realize they’re experiencing a heart attack because they are more likely than men to experience symptoms other than chest pain.
Knowing how to prevent a heart attack and recognize symptoms can help you keep a healthier heart beat for life.
What is a heart attack?
A heart attack occurs when the blood flow to a part of the heart is blocked – usually by a blood clot. If this clot cuts off the blood flow completely, the part of the heart muscle supplied by that artery begins to die.
Getting help fast is crucial! The amount of damage to the heart muscle depends on the size of the area supplied by the blocked artery and the time between the injury to your heart and treatment.
In most cases, heart attacks are a result of coronary artery disease (CAD). Over many years a fatty material called plaque builds up on the inside walls of the coronary arteries, which supply blood and oxygen to your heart. When plaque in the artery ruptures, a blood clot forms around the ruptured material. A heart attack occurs when this blood clot shuts off the blood flow to your heart.
What are my risks?
Many women can significantly reduce their risk of heart disease, like coronary artery disease, by knowing the risk factors and reducing the risks that are preventable. Here are some factors that increase your risk of a heart attack:
•High blood pressure
•Lack of physical activity
•High stress levels
The sooner you take steps toward a healthier heart the stronger chance you have of reducing your risk for a heart attack. In fact, the American Heart Association recommends that heart attack prevention begin by age 20. Working with your physician to come up with a personalized plan and choosing a healthy lifestyle that minimizes the risks listed above is your best defense.
What are the signs?
According to the American Heart Association, most heart attacks start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. Knowing the symptoms can help you know when to seek medical help right away. Typical signs of a heart attack include:
Chest discomfort – Most times this occurs in the center of the chest and lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.
Discomfort in other areas of the upper body – This can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
Shortness of breath – This may be, but isn’t always, accompanied by chest discomfort.
Other signs of a heart attack include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
Women, in particular, may have difficulty recognizing heart attack symptoms because they are more likely than men to experience signs other than significant chest pain. Women may have unexpected fatigue; shortness of breath; heartburn; and shoulder, back or jaw pain.
If you think you or someone you know may be having a heart attack, call 9-1-1 as soon as possible and chew on an aspirin to prevent further blood clotting. Definitely don’t wait longer than five minutes! Women tend to ignore their symptoms and put off seeking help for a heart attack. You don’t have time to fold the towels you just pulled out of the dryer or to make a phone call to your children’s babysitter. You need to get help right away. (Note: If your symptoms stop completely in less than five minutes, you should still call your doctor.)
Your heart is your body’s most important muscle. When it’s in trouble, every second counts. Talk with your doctor about developing a heart-healthy lifestyle and knowing the signs of a heart attack.
Dr. DeBenedetti is a cardiologist with ProMedica Physicians, practicing with Northwest Ohio Cardiology Consultants. For more info visit www.promedica.org/doctors.