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Heart Attacks Hit Middle-Aged Women

Heart attack risk is rising in U.S. women -- decades earlier than you might expect. Find out why, and what women can do about it.
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"I never thought it could happen to me."

That's how Rose Rench reacted when doctors told her she was having a heart attack. At age 46, Rench was bewildered when she suddenly couldn't catch her breath while out for a walk on a sunny spring day. "I was young, I was 130 pounds, and I'd quit smoking a month before. I was healthy. But I couldn't breathe."

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Rench tells WebMD that she somehow drove herself home, but couldn't rest; her mind raced as she tried to gasp for breath. "I thought maybe I was having an asthma attack, though I’d never had asthma before. But I never thought of a heart attack," she says.

Rench drove herself to the emergency room, where tests showed an 80% blockage in two of the arteries bringing blood and nutrients to her heart. She immediately underwent a procedure to open those clogged arteries and keep them open with stents, which are tiny mesh tubes used to treat blockages.

Rench's story isn't as rare as you might think. A recent study shows that heart attacks are rising among middle-aged women, who have long been thought to be protected against heart disease -- at least until they reach menopause and lose the protective effect of the hormone estrogen.

What's behind that alarming trend -- and what can women do to protect themselves from having a heart attack in middle age? The answers, heart experts tell WebMD, are all about raising awareness and taking action.

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