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Heart Month: Warning signs for women

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Older woman experiencing discomfort above the waist, which could be a symptom of heart disease.

February is American Heart Month. Did you know …

  • Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.
  • A woman dies from some form of heart disease every 80 seconds.
  • More women die of heart disease every year than cancer and all other causes put together.
  • Heart disease is 11 times more likely to cause a woman’s death than breast cancer.
  • About a third of all deaths in women are from heart disease.
  • Heart disease kills more women than men every year.
  • Heart disease can affect every woman regardless of age or ethnicity.

Given all that, heart disease is largely preventable.

“A lot of this is within your control,” says Dr. William Witmer, a fellowship-trained cardiologist with Aurora BayCare Cardiology.

“The most common kind of heart disease is coronary artery disease, which is the result of cholesterol blockages building up in the small arteries that feed the heart. That eventually can cause heart attacks and damage to the heart and eventually heart failure,” Witmer says.

“It’s important that women pay attention to their symptoms and people who are close to women pay attention to those symptoms, too,” Witmer says.

“One of the biggest problems with heart disease among women is that although the symptoms may be similar to men, they’re more often ignored and put off as something else, heartburn or indigestion or something else, when they’re really from heart disease.”

Know the symptoms of heart disease:

  • Any discomfort above the waist, even mild discomfort. Heart pain, or pain from a heart attack or a possible heart attack, is often not severe. It can be pressure or an ache just below the chest in the upper abdomen area. It can be in the chest, the arm, the neck, the throat, or felt as tooth pain or jaw pain.
  • Shortness of breath during exertion
  • A recent decrease in exercise tolerance
  • Sudden weight gains
  • Fluid buildup or ankle swelling
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Palpitations
  • New fatigue

“If you’re a woman or a man who is close to women in his life, take heart disease symptoms seriously. Don’t blow them off. Pay attention to those symptoms,” Witmer says.

Heart disease symptoms for women and men are often similar. Chest discomfort is the most common symptom in women, but women are more likely than men to have associated symptoms like nausea or indigestion.

“It’s important to keep first in your mind when you get new symptoms, that it could be my heart,” Witmer says.

What to do when you feel symptoms:

  • See your doctor or a health-care provider when symptoms come on gradually, such as shortness of breath or fatigue or decreased exercise tolerance or swelling.
  • Call 911 and get to the emergency room when it’s new chest discomfort, or any new discomfort above the waist, in the jaw or the chest, even if it’s mild and it’s not going away after 15, 20 minutes.

“If you ever have a question, you should call your doctor immediately and ask over the phone. Time is important when you’re having a heart attack,” Witmer says. “The longer you wait, the more damage will occur to the heart. Once the heart is damaged, that damage is permanent.

“The sooner you get to an emergency room, the more likely you are to not only survive the heart attack but have less damage to the heart.”

Risk factors for heart disease include:

  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • A family history of heart disease (specifically a direct relative 55 or younger who has had a heart attack or heart disease, or a direct woman relative 65 years or younger)
  • Being overweight
  • Physical inactivity
  • Smoking

“A lot of those risk factors – all but one, really – you have control over, which is nice. The only one you really don’t have control over is your family history, what you’ve been born into,” Witmer says.

“But if you control all the other risk factors and you have a strong family history of heart disease, you can reduce your risk to that of someone who does not have a family history of heart disease.”

Ways to control risk factors include:

  • See your physician or health care provider regularly to be screened for diabetes and high blood pressure
  • A proper diet
  • Exercise
  • If you smoke, stop
Published: Monday, February 1, 2021
Author: Jeff Ash