Women and Heart Disease: What You Need to Know

Heart disease continues to be the leading cause of death for women in the United States. What once was thought of as a man’s issue now kills more women than men. One reason may be that many people don’t recognize the unique symptoms of a heart attack in women.

Jack Lassetter, MD, interventional cardiologist at St. Luke’s Medical Center, helps define the risk factors of heart disease and the more subtle signs of heart attacks in women.

Q: What causes a heart attack?

A: A heart attack occurs when the blood supply to the heart muscle is cut off by plaque or a clot. If the blood supply is restricted for more than a few minutes, a part of the heart muscle dies and cannot be regenerated.

Q: Why do more women die from heart attacks than men?

A: The symptoms of heart attacks in women can be much more vague than the traditional movie heart attack. Women usually don’t clutch their chests and fall to the ground. They present with more subtle signs and symptoms that can come on quickly or can last for days, even weeks. Symptoms may include one or more of the following:

  • Pressure, fullness, squeezing pain in the center of the chest, spreading to the neck, shoulder or jaw
  • Chest discomfort with light-headedness, fainting, sweating, nausea, or shortness of breath
  • Upper abdominal pressure or discomfort
  • Lower chest discomfort
  • Back pain
  • Unusual fatigue
  • Unusual shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea

Q: What are the risk factors of heart disease in women?

A: The risk factors include diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity and a family history of heart disease. These risk factors are significantly increased if you smoke. According to the American Heart Association, an estimated 20.9 million women put themselves at increased risk of heart attack and stroke by smoking cigarettes.

Q: What can women do to lower their risk factors?

A: Although you can’t do much about your family history, you can make lifestyle changes to avoid many of the other risk factors. Stop smoking. Get active. Don’t ignore warning signs. Take a moment to look at your lifestyle, family history and your general health. With this information, you and your family doctor can assess your risk and make a plan to avoid potential problems. And remember, there are no dumb questions when it comes to your health. You need to know your risk factors so that you can manage them successfully. In many people, heart attacks are preventable.

Your physician can work with you to help limit your risks but in the end, the choices you make are up to you. I tell my patients, you can drive the bus or let the bus hit you and kill you. Be the driver not the victim.

For more information about heart health, join Dr. Lassetter for “A Talk from the Heart,” a lively and informative discussion followed by heart health screenings. The event will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 6-7:30 p.m. at Tempe St. Luke’s Hospital, 1800 E. Van Buren St., in Phoenix. For more information, or to register, call 1-877-351-WELL (9355).

Jack Lassetter, MD, FACC, FSCAI, is an interventional cardiologist on the medical staff at St. Luke’s Medical Center and in practice with Phoenix Heart Center. For more information about St. Luke’s or Dr. Lassetter, call 1-877-351-WELL (9355).

This information is provided by St. Luke’s Medical Center as general information only and is not intended to replace the advice of a physician.  

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