Women’s Heart Disease: Signs and Treatments

Women’s Heart Disease: Signs and Treatments

What are the statistics for women’s heart disease?

The statistics for women’s heart disease are astounding. Heart disease is the number one killer of women in the United States. According to the American Heart Association, 1 in 2.5 women die from heart disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases—nearly 500,000 deaths per year. In fact, more women die of cardiovascular disease than the next five causes of death combined, including all cancers.

What is a heart attack?

A heart attack, or myocardial infarction, is death of tissue. The pain, pressure, and tightness associated with a heart attack may or may not be extreme. Typically a blockage of fatty deposits or plaque in an artery that supplies blood to the heart muscle is significantly reduced or blocked. As a result, without blood and oxygen this portion of the heart muscle begins to die. The longer the blood supply is cut off, the greater the area of heart damage.

How does a woman know that she is at risk for heart disease?

Family history is considered an important risk factor. Women who smoke risk having a heart attack 19 years earlier than non-smokers. Women with high blood pressure experience a risk of developing coronary heart disease 3.5 times that of females with normal blood pressure. Females with diabetes have more than double the risk of heart attack than non-diabetics. Obesity and inactivity leads to an increased risk of premature death due to cardiovascular problems like high blood pressure, stroke, and coronary artery disease.

What lifestyle changes can be made to prevent heart disease or improve heart health?

There are many health and lifestyle factors that can significantly decrease your risks. Fortunately, there are many things a woman can do to reduce chances of getting heart disease, including:

  • Know your numbers, such as blood pressure and cholesterol, and keep them under control
  • Exercise daily, maintain a healthy weight
  • Don’t smoke
  • Get tested for diabetes. If you have it, keep it under control
  • Maintain a healthy diet with lots of fruit and vegetables
  • Relieve stress through physical activity, relaxation and humor, and meditation.

What tests/screenings are available to reveal risks for heart disease?

No one diagnostic test can determine risk of heart disease. Often several tests are required such as: EKG, echocardiography, blood work, chest x-ray, MRI, stress tests, CT scan, and coronary catheterization.

What are the warning signs of a heart attack?

Each woman experiences different symptoms of a heart attack. Some women experience several symptoms and other women show no symptoms. The symptoms to be aware of include the A-B-Cs:

  • Angina—chest pain, tightness, pressure, burning, squeezing in the chest, back pain, or deep aching and throbbing discomfort in the left or right bicep or forearm, jaw or neck discomfort, pain radiating to the shoulders
  • Breathlessness—waking up and having difficulties catching one’s breath
  • Clammy perspiration paleness
  • Dizziness, unexplained lightheadedness, even blackouts
  • Edema—swelling, particularly of the ankles and lower legs
  • Fluttering or rapid heartbeat, fatigue
  • Gastric upset or nausea

What should I do if I think I’m experiencing the signs of a heart attack?

The most important thing to do if you think you are having heart attack symptoms is to call 911 and tell them you’re experiencing symptoms. It can save your life. They will send an ambulance to transport you to the hospital emergency room as quickly as possible so a doctor can examine and treat you. Do not drive yourself or ask someone to drive you. Today’s EMTs are fully trained to treat and resuscitate a victim of a heart attack.

If a woman is at high risk for heart disease or survives a heart attack, is there a program at Weeks that can get her back on the road to good health?

Weeks has a six week cardiac rehabilitation outpatient program for patients who have had cardiac-related medical issues such as heart attacks, bypass surgery, coronary artery stenting, stable angina, heart valve repair, or a transplant. Through a combination of exercise and education programs, patients learn how to improve and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

By David Pelkowski, MD

David Pelkowksi is a cardiologist at Weeks Medical Center. For more information or for an appointment, please call 603-788-5095.