Many women are shocked to learn that heart disease is the No. 1 killer for both women and men in the United States, with women accounting for almost 50 percent of those deaths.
It is especially dangerous in women, because a woman is more likely than a man to die within a year of the first heart attack. This might be because their symptoms are not recognized soon enough, so treatment is delayed and they suffer more heart damage.
A study by the National Institutes of Health titled "Women's Early Warning Symptoms of AMI" found that 95 percent of women experienced symptoms that were new or different a month or more before having a heart attack, or acute myocardial infarction.
The study found that women's symptoms are not as predictable as men's. It is therefore crucial for women and their clinicians to take this into account and to ensure that appropriate treatment begins as soon as possible.
Typical warning signs of an impending heart attack in both men and women include:
■ Chest pain or discomfort that feels like a tight ache, pressure or a squeezing sensation that might be constant or intermittent.
■ Pain or discomfort spreading through the upper body to the arms, neck, shoulders, back, teeth or jaw.
■ Pain extending into the abdominal area and feeling like heartburn.
■ Profound fatigue.
■ Shortness of breath or shallow breathing.
■ Feelings of anxiety, impending doom or as if one is having a panic attack.
■ Faintness or dizziness.
■ Breaking into a cold sweat.
■ Nausea, vomiting or upset stomach.
Women might have all, none, or a few of the typical symptoms. Rather than severe chest pain, however, women are more likely to report a feeling like severe heartburn in the upper abdomen or neck, jaw or shoulder, or upper back discomfort.
In the NIH study, fewer than 30 percent reported chest pain or discomfort before the heart attack, and 43 percent never had chest pain during any phase of the attack.
Instead, the major symptoms before the heart attack included unusual fatigue, sleep disturbance, shortness of breath, indigestion and anxiety. The major symptoms experienced during the attack included shortness of breath, weakness — especially of the arms — unusual fatigue, cold sweat and dizziness.
The American Heart Association has a Web site, www.goredforwomen.org, with information about heart health that could save your life. Here is a sample:
■ Heart attacks can begin with subtle symptoms that can come and go.
■ Don't be tempted to downplay symptoms as just indigestion or anxiety or a bad hot flash. Err on the side of safety, because quick treatment improves survival rates and minimizes long-term damage.
■ Call 911 if you are having symptoms. If you don't have access to emergency medical services, have someone drive you to the hospital. Drive yourself only as a last resort.
■ If you have been experiencing the above symptoms, be sure to insist on tests to determine whether you have had a heart attack. The tests include an EKG and blood tests measuring cardiac enzymes and C-reactive protein.
This month, see your doctor for a heart checkup and learn what your cholesterol, triglycerides and blood pressure numbers are so you can monitor accordingly.