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Women and Heart Disease: Key Facts You Need to Know

Experts share information about symptoms and risks that even the most health-savvy people may not know.

The WebMD Women's Heart Health Quiz continued...

According to the AHA, women under age 55 account for up to 16,000 heart-related deaths and 40,000 cardiac-related hospitalizations each year.

3. True or False: Health events that occurred during pregnancy -- such as preeclampsia or gestational diabetes -- can be risk factors for heart disease later in life. 

Answer: True. "Preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, high blood pressure during pregnancy -- it was always taught that these conditions go away after birth. But now we know that the impact and the effects linger, increasing the risk for heart disease," says Goldberg.

Preeclampsia causes a woman to have twofold increased risk of heart disease at midlife; gestational diabetes often paves the way for glucose intolerance and other prediabetic conditions that contribute to obesity and other risk factors for heart disease later in life.

"Because it could be 10, 15, 20 years or more since these things occurred, a woman who's 45 or 50 may not think to mention that part of her health history to her current doctor or cardiologist, but she should -- it's vital," says Goldberg.

This is particularly true, she says, if you find yourself in an emergency room with heart attack symptoms. "Knowing your full health history could help ensure you get the correct diagnosis and treatment -- and it may even save your life," says Goldberg.

4. True or False: A stomachache, nausea, vomiting, or unexplained sweating and fatigue can all be signs of a heart attack in women. 

Answer: True.  While the "classic" signs of a heart attack -- like crushing chest pain and pain down the left arm -- can still occur in women having a heart attack, Woynarowski says women are more likely to present with "atypical" symptoms -- including gastrointestinal upset, pain in the jaw, shoulder, or upper back, or sometimes just extreme fatigue.

"Women don't necessarily have the 'classic' symptoms of heart attack -- one reason it sometimes gets overlooked, even by doctors," says Woynarowski.

In terms of symptoms of heart disease, Shin says look for signs such as unusual shortness of breath or sudden changes in your level of activity. "If you're a regular exerciser and run 5 miles a day and suddenly you can only run 1 mile a day, that's something to pay attention to. If you find yourself getting nausea and having an upset stomach and vomiting every time you exert yourself, that's something you need to talk to your doctor about," says Shin. 

5. True or False: Heart palpitations, flutters, or rapid heartbeat can sometimes be a sign of heart disease -- but not always.

Answer: True.  While any heartbeat-related problems could be an indication of heart disease, experts say this is not a hard-and-fast rule. Sometimes they can also be clues to other ailments or problems not related to heart health.

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