Heart Month A Good Time For Women To Note Heart Attack Risks

Women Can Have Different Warning Signs Say Spectrum Health Experts

February is National Heart Month and a good time to remind women that heart disease is their number one killer.

The single most feared disease among women remains breast cancer, according to a recent Society for Women’s Health Research survey.’ However, while a woman’s risk of dying of breast cancer is 1 in 30, her risk of dying of heart disease is nearly 1 in 3.

“Despite the lingering perception that this is a ‘man’s disease,’ more women than men die of heart disease – nearly 500,000 annually in the U.S.,” said cardiologist Helene Sherman, MD, medical director of the Spectrum Health Healthy Heart program. “Most women are good about getting annual mammograms but not as many assess their heart risk factors.”

Sherman stresses that every woman should have an annual physical and discuss risk factors with their physician. “Women need to know their numbers: blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, weight and body fat. If any of these numbers are elevated, it can increase their risk for heart disease.”

Smoking, physical inactivity, stress, poor eating habits and being overweight are also factors that increase the risk of heart disease. These are also topics that should be discussed with a physician, Sherman said.

While managing risk factors and having regular check ups are a long term approach to fighting heart disease, Sherman said that it is critically important for women to be aware of the signs of a heart attack. “Women don’t always have the classic signs of a heart attack or may think that they are too young to have a heart attack but everyone should know the warning signs and heed them.”

That advice is echoed by emergency medicine specialist Cathy Puetz, MD, medical director of the Wege Chest Pain Center at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital. “I see women every month who think they’re too young for a heart attack or don’t recognize symptoms. If they aren’t experiencing classic symptoms such as chest pain, they don’t think they are having a heart attack.”

Puetz explained that getting to the hospital quickly via an ambulance can be just as important as recognizing heart attack symptoms. “Quick treatment of a heart attack is important to decrease the amount of damage to your heart. If you are having any symptoms or think you are having a heart attack, do not wait. Call 9-1-1 for emergency assistance and chew a regular-strength aspirin.

“There is a lifesaving difference between driving to the hospital and calling 9-1-1. Paramedics can begin evaluating your status, start treatment and send important information to the emergency department during transport.”‘ Puetz said many of the paramedic teams she works with send heart rhythm data from the ambulance, which helps physicians prepare for a patient’s arrival.

Sherman and Puetz offer the following information and tips for women:

Heart attack symptoms in women may differ from the usual warning signs seen in men, such as crushing chest pain. Heart disease often develops over time and women may not notice any symptoms. However, you may observe the following warning signs:

  • Chest discomfort/pressure/aching/tightness/pain
  • Pain spreading to the jaw, neck, shoulder or arm
  • Discomfort or pain between the shoulder blades
  • Indigestion or gas-like pain/heartburn
  • Nausea/upset stomach
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Dizziness
  • Unexplained weakness or fatigue (unusually tired; unable to do normal activities)
  • Sense of impending doom

Although women may experience any of the above symptoms, some are especially common. The most common symptoms are shortness of breath with activity, chest discomfort (described as pressure, aching or tightness-not pain), unusual fatigue (unusu’ally tired; unable to do normal activities), decrease in the ability to exercise, weakness, heartburn and anxiety.

More information about women and heart health can be found at the Spectrum Health Women’s Healthy Heart Program Web site.

Spectrum Health is a not-for-profit health system in West Michigan that offers a full continuum of care through the Spectrum Health Hospital Group, a collection of seven hospitals and more than 140 service sites; the Spectrum Health Medical Group, a multispecialty team of nearly 100 providers; and Priority Health, a health plan with nearly 500,000 members. Spectrum Health’s 14,000 employees, 1,500 medical staff members and 2,000 volunteers are committed to delivering the highest quality care to those in medical need.’ The organization provided $111.1 million in community benefit during its 2008 fiscal year. As a system, Spectrum Health has earned more than 100 awards during the past 10 years.