Heart Attack in Women

Dear Dr. B: I am a 60 years old woman. Few months ago, I felt nauseated and broke out in a sweat. My back went into spasm. After a few seconds, everything subsided. I just felt weak. I think I had a slight heart attack. Is it true that a woman’s symptoms of a heart attack are different from a man’s symptoms?

On an average, our heart beats 72 times a minute. That is 4320 times an hour. In 24 hours, our heart beats 103,680 times. That is lot of work. The work load increases as our activities increase.

Under normal circumstances and activities there is no chest pain, shortness of breath or discomfort when the heart is doing its work at a regular rate and rhythm.

But heart is very venerable to disease. Women are not immune to that. Newsweek reports that every year a quarter of a million women die of heart disease- more than the total number killed by breast cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s combined – making it Americas No. 1 killer of women , as well as men. Statistics in Canada are no different.

It is alright for women to worry about breast cancer and cervical cancer. But the risk of dying from heart disease is higher. And sometimes you don’t get a second chance. So if you have any symptoms suggestive of heart disease then talk to your doctor.

What are the typical symptoms of a heart attack?

If you are having a heart attack then you feel crushing chest pain – usually very severe. This may be associated with sweating, dizziness, shortness of breath and radiation of pain to the jaw, left shoulder and arm. There may be nausea and vomiting. There is fear of dying.

But not everybody has such classical symptoms. Twenty five percent of the people experience no chest pain during a heart attack. They may have other symptoms like shortness of breath, sweating and fainting. This is called “silent infarction”.

Some women fall in this category of “silent infarction”. They may feel tired, short of breath, nausea, indigestion, back pain or abdominal pain. Women tend to ignore these symptoms not realizing it could be a heart attack. And that is where the danger lies.

Heart disease in women is a real thing. After the age of 60, coronary heart disease is the main cause of death among women. In this age group, 25 percent of the women die of the disease – same as men.

What to do if you are having a chest pain or think you are having a heart attack?

Dial 911 and call an ambulance. Do not wait for self-diagnosis or drive in your own car. Chances of surviving a heart attack are better in an ambulance with paramedics at hand than in your own vehicle. If you are having a heart attack then the outcome of your illness may be dictated by:
-The speed and mode of transportation to emergency department.
-Your previous history of heart problems.
-Rapid evaluation of your condition by emergency physician.
-The use of “clot busting” drugs in a timely fashion.

How to prevent heart disease?

Make sure your cholesterol level and blood pressure is under control. Exercise regularly. Eat a healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, fish and chicken. Take an aspirin a day – check with your doctor first to make sure it is safe for you to do so.

So, remember, if you think you are having a heart attack then dial 911 and call an ambulance. While waiting for it, have an aspirin. A telephone call and an aspirin may save your life.

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