Heart Smarts for Women
Sort the Myths From the Facts About Heart Health and Women
Heart disease is not just a man’s problem; in fact, more women than men die each year from cardiovascular disease. One in three adult women has some form of cardiovascular disease, yet many women do not associate new or different physical symptoms with their heart. Since women often experience different symptoms than men, it is important to make the connection so heart disease does not go ignored or undertreated.
At University Hospitals Harrington Heart & Vascular Institute, we are committed to excellence in providing quality care for our patients. Part of that means empowering women to separate the myths from the facts about heart health. After all, it is not just true that heart disease can affect women, heart disease can affect you.
- MYTH: Heart palpitations are just a sign of stress.
FACT: A racing heartbeat can be a sign of an arrhythmia, or heart rhythm disorder. When women complain of palpitations, they may be diagnosed with panic attacks or told they are just nervous or anxious. In fact, they may have a true heart rhythm disorder that can be treated.
Less than half of people with palpitations actually have arrhythmias. But the only way to know whether you have a treatable heart rhythm disturbance is to be evaluated by your internist or cardiologist, who can send you home with a monitor for recording and assessing your heart rhythms.
- MYTH: All heart attacks feel the same – like an elephant is sitting on your chest.
FACT: Not all heart attacks feel the same. Many people may recognize “squeezing, heavy chest pressure” as a heart attack symptom. But any of these may be signs of a heart attack:
- Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest
- Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach
- Shortness of breath (with or without chest discomfort)
- Nausea, lightheadedness or breaking out in a cold sweat
Women are somewhat more likely than men to have less stereotypical symptoms, such as shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting, or back or jaw pain.
If you think you might be having a heart attack, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Call 911 and take an aspirin. Waiting too long limits the ability of the doctors to salvage the heart muscle. Once heart muscle is lost, the heart’s pump is weakened. This damage can increase the risk of heart failure and sudden cardiac death.
- MYTH: Estrogen protects your heart.
FACT: It depends on which side of menopause a women is on. Before menopause, it is true that estrogen has a protective effect against heart disease. Compared with men, women’s risk is delayed by about 10 years, but once a woman is postmenopausal, she catches up very quickly to her male counterparts.
After menopause, women become more likely than before to develop plaque and clots in blood vessels, increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke. Boosting estrogen levels with hormone replacement therapy (HRT) does not help the heart, as it does not restore a woman’s risk to a premenopausal state. In fact, research has linked HRT to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke as well as breast cancer. The Food and Drug Administration recommends that women who use HRT use the lowest effective dose for the shortest possible duration. Before considering HRT, your doctor will help you evaluate any health conditions or inherited risks that would outweigh its benefits.
- MYTH: Young women do not need to worry about heart disease.
FACT: It is never too early to think about prevention. Because of the impact of menopause, women’s heart disease risk does increase at age 50. But starting at age 25, cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 cause of death in women. It kills more women than the next four causes of death combined, including cancer. It is important for women to know that if they develop heart disease when they are older, women routinely do less well than men. Women have higher mortality rates and are more likely to have
complications from procedures. The best way to deal with that is to try to prevent heart disease in the first place.
A heart-healthy diet, exercise and not smoking could prevent 80 percent of cardiac events in women, according to the American Heart Association. Taking control early and really trying to modify all risk factors can really change a woman’s life.
In addition to smoking and inactivity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity and diabetes increase heart disease risk.
Do not just do it for yourself; do it for the people you love. Women have a huge impact on their family’s heart health. When your family sees you making good choices for yourself, it’s easier for them to make better choices, too.