Coronary heart disease, heart failure and resulting stroke are the top killers of American women. In short, one woman dies every minute from heart disease. With February proclaimed American Heart Month, more women are adopting better health habits such as getting regular exercise, not smoking, and eating a more balanced diet to counter what is increasingly called the “silent killer.”
The American Heart Association (AHA) reports that in excess of 300,000 women die each year from heart attack, representing about one in every four American women. For generations, people have stereotyped the typical symptoms of heart attack as a person clutching their chest, complaining of severe pain along their left arm, and eventually falling to the ground. Cardiologists say this scenario is not common among women. Instead, women typically experience shortness of breath, pressure or pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen, dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting, upper back pressure or extreme fatigue.
“Although men and women can experience chest pressure that feels like an elephant sitting across the chest, women can experience a heart attack without chest pressure,” said Nieca Goldberg, medical director for the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at New York University’s Langone Medical Center. Even when the signs are subtle and you think its simply indigestion or you may be coming down with the flu, Goldberg said the consequences can be deadly, especially if the victim doesn’t get help immediately. “Many women just say it’s acid-reflux or just normal aging,” she explained. “They do this because they are scared and because they put their families first. There are still many women who are shocked that they could be having a heart attack.”
Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the most common type of heart disease and is the leading cause of heart attacks. CAD occurs when the coronary arteries that surround and supply blood to the heart lose their elasticity and become hardened and narrowed because of plaque build-up inside the artery. Called atherosclerosis, this condition causes the coronary arteries to narrow thus slowing down blood flow to the heart and causing it to beat more slowly or even stop. Here is when chest pain (angina), shortness of breath and other systems are most resonate. Until the mid 1990s, women were often not included in heart disease research, but now with more women balancing a career and family, more reliance on processed or “fast food” because of increased daily responsibilities, and more young women who smoke have all elevated heart disease as their most serious health challenge.
The new medical statistics indicate that more women die of heart disease than the next three health-related causes of death combined—including all forms of cancer. One in three American women die of cardiovascular disease, compared to one in 30 women who die from breast cancer. Only one in six American women believes that heart disease is her greatest health risk. As well, the AHA found that only slightly more than half of women are likely to call 911 if they are experiencing symptoms, but 79 percent of women surveyed said they would call 911 if someone else was having a heart attack.