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Heart Disease Health Center

What You (and Your Doctor) Don't Know Can Kill You

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According to Womenheart, the symptoms of heart attack in women can be any of the following:

  • Discomfort, fullness, tightness, squeezing, or pressure in the center of the chest that either comes and goes or stays for more than a few minutes
  • Pressure or pain in the upper back, shoulders, neck, or arms
  • Dizziness or nausea
  • Clammy sweats, heart flutters, or paleness
  • An unexplained feeling of anxiety, fatigue, or weakness
  • Stomach or abdominal pain
  • Shortness of breath and difficulty breathing

When Loving was diagnosed with her heart attack, she learned that her cholesterol reading was 313. She hadn't been tested in 10 years, despite her known health risks. "The collective ignorance is appalling," Loving says.

The major risk factors for heart disease in women are:

  • Being over 55 and postmenopausal
  • Having a family history of the disease
  • Smoking
  • Having a cholesterol level over 240 or blood pressure more than 140/90
  • Leading a sedentary lifestyle
  • Being more than 20 pounds overweight
  • Having diabetes
  • Being African American. Not only do black women have a higher incidence of heart disease than white women, they are twice as likely to die from the disease.

While younger women are not as prone to the disease as their counterparts over 65, heart disease still claims 9,000 U.S. woman under 45 each year, and a total of 74,000 under 65.

The younger a woman is when she has a heart attack, the greater her chances of dying from it, says Alexandra Lansky, MD. Often, she says, a woman's first sign of heart disease is death. Lansky is director of the Women's Cardiac Health Initiative at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.

For Loving, making people aware has become a political issue. Although awareness campaigns for breast cancer have been very successful, "women heart attack victims have no community support, no ribbon, no race," she says.

She adds that, in addition to the health problems, women are more likely than men to experience financial and relationship fallout after a heart attack. "I lost a year to depression and anxiety [after the attack]," she says.

Giardina says women and their doctors must recognize the risks and work on those that are modifiable, such as controlling diabetes, lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, quitting smoking, and getting more exercise.

Awareness is the key, Hayes says. "What physicians don't know can hurt you," She adds, "What you don't know can hurt you."

Information on support for women with heart disease can be found at www.womenheart.org.

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