Women: Understanding your risk for heart attacks


While movies may depict a man clenching his chest and tumbling to the floor due to a heart attack ­— this is often not the case, especially for women. Cardiovascular disease remains the leading cause of death in women, and many women experience different symptoms and go undiagnosed longer than men. Knowing your risk and changing your lifestyle could save your life.

A common problem
The US Department of Health and Human Services reports that each year, one in four women who die will die from heart disease. In 2004, nearly 60 percent more women died of cardiovascular disease (both heart disease and stroke) than from all cancers combined.
Heart attacks occur most often as a result of coronary artery disease (CAD). In CAD, a fatty material called plaque builds up over many years on the inside walls of the coronary arteries (the arteries that supply blood and oxygen to your heart). Eventually, an area of plaque can rupture, causing a blood clot to form on the surface of the plaque. If the clot becomes large enough, it can mostly or completely block the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the part of the heart muscle fed by the artery.
During a heart attack, if the blockage in the coronary artery isn’t treated quickly, the heart muscle will begin to die and be replaced by scar tissue. This heart damage may not be obvious, or it may cause severe or long-lasting problems.

Know the signsAccording to the American Heart Association, the most common heart attack signs and symptoms include:
• Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks
involve discomfort in the center of the
chest that lasts more than a few minutes,
or that goes away and comes back. It can
feel like uncomfortable pressure,
squeezing, fullness, or pain.  
• Discomfort in other areas of the   upper body. Symptoms can include
pain or discomfort in one or both arms,
the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
• Shortness of breath, with or
without chest discomfort. 
• Other signs may include: breaking
out in a cold sweat, nausea or
While many men experience significant chest pain, women tend to have other symptoms such as unexpected fatigue, shortness of breath, heart burn, and shoulder, back or jaw pain.
If you think you or someone you know may be having a heart attack, or have unexplained symptoms or a change in your ability to do things, call 9–1–1 as soon as possible. If your symptoms stop completely in less than 5 minutes, still call your doctor.

Prevention is key
Many women can significantly reduce their risk of heart disease by understanding the risk factors and taking action to reduce their risk. Your risk increases with smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, weight, bad cholesterol, lack of physical activity, high stress levels, and family history. Women are also at greater risk for heart disease after menopause due to reduced estrogen levels.
The American Heart Association recommends that heart attack prevention begin by age 20. The sooner you begin comprehensive risk reduction, the longer and stronger your heart will beat.Choosing a healthy lifestyle is your best defense against heart disease.
For more information on heart disease and ProMedica Heart and Vascular Institutes, call 1-877-303-5558 or visit www.promedica.org/heart.

Ahed Nahhas, MD, FACC, FSCAI is a cardiologist at Toledo Clinic Cardiology, ProMedica Heart and Vascular Institutes. He can be reached c/o editor@toledoareaparent.com.