Your Heart Health Month Insight: Women and men may experience heart attacks differently
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Four things every woman should know about caring for their hearts during these stressful times
In the past year of upheaval and lives lost to COVID-19, one thing stayed the same: Heart disease remained the No. 1 killer for both women and men nationwide and here in New Jersey.
Heart disease and COVID-19, it turns out, are connected in several ways. Having an underlying heart condition could make a COVID-19 infection more severe, while the coronavirus may lead to heart damage. Plus, dealing with the stress and anxiety brought on by the pandemic isn’t good for your cardiovascular system either.
Another reason paying attention to your heart has become more important than ever: Women and men experience heart attacks differently, and it’s this difference in symptoms that may prevent some women from getting the heart care they need.
Now that it’s Heart Health Month, it’s a great time to find out what you need to know about women’s heart attacks to make sure our loved ones can be heart-healthy year-round.
1. What do heart attack symptoms look like for women?
Chest pain is the most common heart attack symptom in both women and men. But for some women, chest pain is not always severe or even the most noticeable symptom.
Instead of the chest-clutching pain commonly associated with heart attacks, some women describe their chest pain as a pressure or tightness. Only half of women who have heart attacks have chest pain.
There are some symptoms, though, that women are more likely to experience than men:
Unusual fatigue. It’s common for busy women to feel tired, but you need to watch out for fatigue that’s new or dramatic. For example, if you’re suddenly exhausted after a normal workout or feel really tired after simple activities, these could be signs of an impending heart attack.
Sweating or shortness of breath. Hot flashes are common for many women as they age, but sudden sweating without strenuous activity or shortness of breath that worsens when lying down are signs for concern.
Neck, jaw or back pain. When the heart has a problem, it can trigger pain elsewhere in the body. If you have pain in the jaw, back or neck that is not tied to a specific muscle ache or worsens during exercise then disappears, you should get it checked out.
Other symptoms for women can include indigestion, heartburn, nausea or vomiting.
2. It is important to take symptoms seriously.
Doctors have reported that many women do not recognize they have a heart problem. They may think heart disease is typically a man’s problem, or they may put their families’ needs above their own and not seek care. Additionally, women may also attribute their symptoms to conditions like acid reflux or the flu.
Since women don’t always chalk up their symptoms to a potential heart attack, they could show up in the ER after their hearts have already been damaged. If you think you’re having a heart attack, call for emergency help immediately.
3. What risk factors do women have for heart disease?
Both women and men who have high cholesterol, high blood pressure or are obese have a greater risk of heart disease. But other factors can make it more likely for women to get heart disease.
Diabetes. Women with diabetes are more likely to develop heart disease than their male counterparts.
Mental stress and depression. Women's hearts are more affected by stress and depression than men's.
Smoking. Women who smoke are more likely to have heart disease than men who smoke.
Lack of activity. According to some research, women tend to be less active than men – which is a major risk factor for heart disease.
Menopause. Women in menopause are at risk of developing disease in the smaller blood vessels around the heart.
Pregnancy complications. If women have high blood pressure or diabetes during pregnancy, they may have a longer-term risk of heart disease.
4. What can women do to prevent heart disease?
Taking care of your heart means embracing a healthy lifestyle.
Quit smoking. One year of being smoke-free can cut your risk of heart disease by 50 percent. If you’ve never smoked, don’t start.
Set an exercise routine. Walking just 30 minutes a day can lower your risk of heart disease.
Maintain a healthy weight. Losing a few pounds if you’re overweight can lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of diabetes.
Modify your diet. Eating healthy includes whole grains, a variety of fruits and vegetables, low-fat or fat-free dairy products and lean meats.
Manage your stress. If you’re feeling stressed, you might feel your muscles tighten. The same thing happens to your arteries, which increases your risk of heart disease.
Limit alcohol. Don’t have more than one alcoholic drink a day.