Heart disease is serious stuff and men, when they feel an intense chest pressure and numbness in their arms, know it’s of utmost importance to see their doctor as quickly as possible. For women, it’s not quite so easy.
“Women might not get the crashing chest pain,” says Ingalls Hospital cardiologist Dr. Sabrina Akrami. “Instead they might get severe indigestion, shortness of breath, flu like symptoms, an overwhelming fatigue because that’s how heart disease sometimes presents itself in women.”
“Heart disease and stroke are the first and fourth causes of death among women in the U.S.,” says Diane Kemp, Executive Director, American Heart Association, Midwest Affiliate. “Importantly almost twice as many women die of heart disease and stroke and other cardiovascular diseases as from all forms of cancer including breast cancer.”
Women are also less likely to go to the doctor for symptoms such as jaw line aches, neck discomfort, feeling tired or even flulike symptoms. But it’s the severity and duration of the pain that is telling.
“It is hard to differentiate, but if women are seeing a significant change in their daily activities because they’re tired or hurt, and if they continue not to get better, they need to see a doctor,” says Akrami.
Women not only need to take action, when they do it should be as their own advocate.
“If the doctor says, 'Oh it’s summer and your kids are home, no wonder you feel tired or your neck aches,'” says Kemp. “Women need to feel comfortable going back. We want women to ask questions. If you’re at the doctor for back pain, she or he may not look at the history and just treat your symptoms.”
Being heart healthy means knowing your numbers -- blood pressure, blood sugar, triglycerides and cholesterol levels. And know your family health history.
“If women have family members with heart disease particularly at an early age, say in their 50s and early 60s, they need to be more aggressive about visiting their doctor and eating healthy meals avoiding fats and salt as well as consuming more fruits and vegetables,” says Akrami. “It’s also important to exercise regularly to get the heart rate up, avoid smoking and have a moderate alcohol intake.”
Prevention starts with education. When the American Heart Association launched Go Red for Women, their initiative designed to empower women to take charge of their heart health, under 10 percent of women knew that heart disease was the number one killer of women. A decade later, it’s 60 percent.
“We’ve made great progress,” says Kemp. “But we need to reach the other 40 percent.”