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Not all heart attacks are created equal, especially for women

February 29, 2016

Not all heart attacks are created equal.

Especially if you are a woman.

“When asked about the warning signs of a heart attack, many people often respond by citing the classic symptoms such as chest pain or pressure – that classic feeling of an elephant sitting on your chest – or pain radiating up and down one or both arms,” said Dr. Heba Wassif of the Heart & Vascular Program at Baystate Medical Center.

According to Dr. Wassif, only about 65% of women will call 911 when experiencing symptoms of a heart problem, so it’s import for them to be aware of the warning signs, some of which are unique to women.

“Heartburn, especially in African-American women, as well as feeling light-headed, dizzy, short of breath, and unusual and unexplained fatigue, are some unique warning signs to women. But, women can also share symptoms common to men, such as chest pressure and arm, neck, and back pain,” said Dr. Wassif.

Heart Disease Is Preventable

Statistics from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) cite 1 in 3 women dying from heart disease, which is considered to be the number one killer of women. Yet, only 2 out of 3 American women (1 out of 3 minority women) consider heart disease to be her greatest health risk.

“As a result, education surrounding heart health needs to continue among women. The good news is that heart disease is preventable,” said Dr. Wassif.

When it comes to prevention, Dr. Wassif said the best recommendation she has for her patients is to follow what the American Heart Association calls “Life’s Simple 7.”

“The best thing you can do for your heart right now is to stop smoking. It’s also important to control your blood pressure and cholesterol – the higher your numbers, then the greater your risk for heart disease and stroke – and to reduce your sugar intake. You also want to keep active, such as taking a brisk walk for 30 minutes each day. Maintaining a healthy weight and losing those extra pounds is also essential to improved cardiovascular health, as is a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low in saturated and trans fats,” said Dr. Wassif.

Know the Risks

The Baystate cardiologist noted women should also understand their risk factors for developing cardiovascular disease. While sharing traditional risk factors with men such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and obesity, women also have other factors unique to them.

“Women who have diabetes have a much greater risk of developing heart disease than men who have diabetes. Also, women who develop high blood pressure while pregnant, a condition we call preeclampsia, have a higher likelihood of developing high blood pressure in the future. And, we know that high blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease,” said Dr. Wassif.

It is also believed that stress and decreased levels of estrogen in a woman’s body after menopause can put her at increased risk for a heart attack.

Dr. Wassif said women should talk to their doctors about their diet, including sugar and salt intake. More and more studies point to the fact that there is a link to the amount of sugar American adults consume to their risk of dying from heart disease.

The American Heart Association suggests women consume less than 100 calories a day from added sugars (less than 150 for men), which equals about 6 teaspoons or sugar.

“Remember, it’s never too late to start taking healthy steps to ensure your heart health,” said Dr. Wassif.