Medical research in women has traditionally had a “bikini approach” i.e. focused on the disease of the breast and reproductive system. Heart attack was considered to be a man’s disease. Ironically, heart disease kills more women than breast cancer. The incidence of heart disease increases sharply after menopause, heart attacks are increasingly been seen in young women. Women don’t realize that heart attacks could happen to them.
Heart attacks happen when one of the main arteries of the heart gets blocked causing the heart muscle to die. Cholesterol deposits in the arteries may break open and form a blood clot that blocks flow. Women tend to have blockages not only in the main arteries but also in the smaller arteries of the heart – coronary microvascular disease. Rarely heart attacks occur from a tear in the artery (Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection), particularly in young women with no traditional risk factors. Cardiac arrest happens when the heart stops completely from a dangerous rhythm, causes a person to pass out and external shock (defibrillation) is required to jump-start the heart. Time is everything in a heart attack.
Women are more likely to have less obvious symptoms. There may be an uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, and discomfort in the center of the chest that may radiate to one or both arms, back, neck, jaws or stomach. It may be accompanied by shortness of breath, weakness, fatigue, profuse cold sweats, restlessness, indigestion. Sometimes it is hard to recognize the heart attack as it happens – you know something is wrong, but not what, and is unable to think clearly. The discomfort may settle for some time and come back as suddenly as it did with more severity. Diabetics and the elderly can have a heart attack without chest discomfort. Women typically downplay their symptoms. Women suffering a heart attack take longer than men to ask for help and reach the hospital.
It is important to seek medical attention if you are experiencing any new or distressing symptom – even if you are unsure whether it is serious or not.
Who Is At Risk Of Heart Attack?
A heart attack can happen to anyone. Women of all ages should take heart disease seriously. Some factors are associated with increased risk – high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, mental stress, depression, smoking, inactivity, and menopause. Pregnancy complications such as high blood pressure or diabetes and inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus increase the risk of heart disease. Radiation and chemotherapy used to treat breast cancer increase cardiac risk. Those with a family history of heart disease need to pay close attention to risk factors.
Can You Prevent Heart Attacks?
Women will do anything for their families and often they leave themselves for last. They need to change their attitude towards health and take care of themselves. The least you can do is live a healthy lifestyle - eat healthily, exercise regularly, maintain healthy weight and fitness. If medications are required to control blood pressure or sugar please take them regularly and in the optimum doses to achieve good control. Social support, optimism, strong family ties, and good friends help navigate illness and life better.