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Young Women Can Have Heart Disease Too


Young women aren't often thought of as the face of heart disease. Yet each year, 35,000 women under the age of 55 experience a heart attack. For those under age 50, women’s heart attacks are twice as likely to be fatal as men's, says the Women’s Heart Foundation.

Despite these numbers, many young women spend more time worrying about cancer than their hearts. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that only 54 percent of women recognize that heart disease is their No. 1 killer. This can sometimes result in women being less attuned to potential warning signs.

“In younger women, sometimes symptoms may be disregarded,” cardiologist Dina Sparano, MD says.

Being aware – and reactive – to signs of heart disease can mean the difference between life and death, she says.

Heart Disease Warning Signs

According to Dr. Sparano, here are five warning signs of heart disease you shouldn’t ignore:

  1. Chest pain. If you notice pain, tightness, pressure or burning in the center or left-center of your chest, and it doesn’t subside after a few minutes, call 9-1-1“Chest pain is the most common symptom of a heart attack in both women and men,” Dr. Sparano says.
  2. Upper body pain. “Women more than men are more likely to experience pain in the arms, shoulders, neck, back, jaw or abdomen when they are having a heart attack,” Dr. Sparano says.
  3. Shortness of breath. If you suddenly find walking up a flight of steps – or simply getting out of bed – leaves you winded, it might be a sign of a heart attack, Dr. Sparano says.
  4. Fainting spells. “Certain kinds of heart disease can cause fainting and needs to be evaluated,” Dr. Sparano says.
  5. Abnormal heart rhythms. If you feel your heart flip-flopping, speeding up or beating erratically – and you didn’t just finish working out – you should let your doctor know. Heart palpitations could indicate underlying heart rhythm disorders. While bothersome, most of them aren't dangerous and can be cured or significantly reduced with adequate treatment, Dr. Sparano says.

Being Proactive to Prevent Heart Disease

In order to stay heart healthy, women need to be active participants in their health care, Dr. Sparano says.

“We know that women tend to be more motivated when it comes to the needs of those we care for; yet, this same principle does not necessarily apply to our own health needs,” she says. “It’s not enough to 'know our numbers' for cardiovascular test results and measurements like cholesterol levels and blood pressure. We must go one step further.”

That means being proactive about your heath. Two of the biggest actions younger women can take to lower their risks of heart disease is to know their family health history and actively practice a healthy lifestyle that focuses on prevention, Dr. Sparano says. 

“When I take down family history, I don’t just ask if anyone in the family had a heart attack," she says. "I also ask, ‘Did anyone drop dead at a young age or did anyone have a stroke?’ Those answers may all be clues to help determine a person’s risk of developing heart disease at certain ages.”

Key Elements of a Healthy Lifestyle

While heart disease can strike anyone, women's heart health risks increase after menopause, partly due to the decrease in estrogen, says Dr. Sparano. Regardless of your age, living a healthy life doesn’t mean you have to live an ascetic one.

Instead, Dr. Sparano says you should:

  • Follow a healthy diet
  • Exercise
  • Abstain from smoking
  • Keep control of your blood pressure and blood sugar levels
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Keep up with your medications
  • Call your doctor if you witness any abnormal symptoms or changes.

“The worst thing you can do is dismiss these symptoms,” she says.

Treatment Options

Heart disease is caused by an obstruction or narrowing in the arteries that supply blood to the heart. The treatment for heart disease varies on the condition. If, after screenings and tests, your doctors may recommend practicing more than just maintenance to keep your heart healthy. Those recommendations might include taking prescription medicines to control symptoms and help reverse the disease's progress and prevent clots. Or, surgery might be recommended.

“Some medications might have to be taken life-long, others for a short time,” Dr. Sparano says.

Dina Sparano, MD is a cardiologist at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center. You can request an appointment with Dr. Sparano or any University Hospitals  doctor online.