Heart disease kills more American women every year than all types of cancer combined—in fact, heart disease accounts for about 1 out of 4 deaths every year. If this surprises you, you aren’t alone. According to one study, 47 percent of women didn’t know that heart disease was the number one cause of death for women.
Heart disease is not just one disease. It is a term that encompasses many diseases and conditions, including congestive heart failure, arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), coronary artery disease (CAD), heart valve problems, and even high blood pressure and stroke. CAD is the most common heart disease. It occurs when arteries in your heart become narrow due to age or buildup of cholesterol. Heart attacks occur when these arteries become so blocked that blood cannot pass through. They can also be caused by a spasm or tear in a coronary artery. Smoking and cocaine use may cause artery spasms.
Stress is a huge risk factor for heart disease, and caregivers, who often experience stress that they cannot control, are uniquely at risk. So it’s important to know the facts and risk factors for heart disease, as well as the signs of heart attack. It’s also important to take steps to reduce risk factors that are in your control.
Many diseases increase your risk for heart disease. Other risk factors include lifestyle choices that you can control, as well as certain things that you can’t.
In addition, taking some medications can increase risk. Birth control pills can increase blood pressure, and in women who smoke the risk of heart disease increases by 20 percent. Statins, which are often prescribed to control cholesterol, may increase risk indirectly. People taking them may have a sense of false assurance and think, “I take this medication, so I don’t have to watch my diet or exercise.”
The best way to reduce your risk? Address lifestyle factors you can control.
The Hollywood stereotype of a person having a heart attack—clutching the chest, gasping for breath, and falling to the floor—might be accurate for men, but not for women. Women and men both may experience chest pain, but women’s symptoms are more subtle. Women typically describe discomfort—feeling pressure or squeezing in the chest—rather than a sharp pain.
Another difference: Men often experience heart attacks and heart attack symptoms during or shortly after activity. Women experience them at rest—even while sleeping. And women’s symptoms may be triggered by mental stress, including grief.
Other common symptoms in women may seem unrelated to heart problems, or may be mistaken for or attributed to other things:
Because women’s symptoms are less dramatic and often less clear-cut than men’s, women often wait four times longer to get medical attention! So if you have any of these symptoms, call your doctor, call 911, or go to the emergency department right away.