Women and heart attacks

by Mary Rains

Mille Lacs Health System

February is the month of valentines and hearts. It’s a good time for women to learn about their hearts, and why it’s important to realize that heart attacks in men and women can look somewhat different. By taking control of what you know about your own health, and what you can do to lower risk factors of heart disease and heart attack, you can better take care of your ticker.

Hormones in aging women can play a big part in heart disease. During menopause, women should discuss the risk versus the benefits of hormone replacement therapy with their medical providers.

Other players in the mix are anger and depression, as well as trouble at home. Major stressful life events also can put women at a differential risk. Compared to men, these factors are more likely to trigger a heart event, as well as predict poorer outcomes. On the other hand, a positive attitude and healthy, supportive relationships are associated with reduced risks.

When women have heart attacks, the symptoms more often than not look different than when men have heart attacks. Though chest pain is a prominent symptom in men, for women it may be more subtle, or not there at all. Women’s symptoms lean more towards sweating; lightheadedness; shortness of breath; or neck, jaw, shoulder and abdominal discomfort. Some women ignore symptoms, or blame them on other, less consequential things. Other times, there are no symptoms present.

Heart disease isn’t just an older person’s issue. Women in their 20s can begin developing atherosclerosis, which is plaque in the arteries. And just because a person is fit, doesn’t mean they’ll be immune from heart disease. That’s why it’s important to know your numbers, and your risk factors.

Your “numbers” include blood pressure, body mass index (or BMI), cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood glucose. When you have your yearly checkup, get these tests done so you and your medical provider can decide about preventative measures together.

Research says that 90% of women have one or more risk factors. These include smoking, diabetes, inactivity, and being overweight. Eighty percent of risk factors can be controlled through lifestyle changes, so having an awareness can improve your chances of staying healthy and avoiding heart problems. 

The American Heart Association says lack of exercise, a poor diet, and other unhealthy habits like smoking can take their toll over the years. Anyone at any age can benefit from simple steps to keep their heart healthy.