SALT LAKE CITY — Although heart disease may often be thought of as a problem for men, heart disease is the most common cause of death for both women and men in the United States. One challenge is that some heart disease symptoms in women may be different from those in men. Fortunately, women can take steps to understand their unique symptoms of heart disease and to begin to reduce their risk of heart disease.
February is National Heart Health Awareness Month and Intermountain Healthcare hospitals are providing a month-long series of presentations and classes in support of the national effort to increase heart health by increasing awareness.
The lecture series provides opportunities to generate discussion about ways you and your family can prevent heart disease. It also helps bring awareness to the resources that are available at Intermountain, should you be faced with a heart disease battle of your own. Heart disease remains the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States.
Why it’s important for women to be aware of symptoms associated with heart disease
Nearly one-third of women will be affected by heart disease. Heart disease affects more women than all cancer types combined and the symptoms can differ between a man and women.
When we think of a heart attack we think of the classic signs, so people will complain of it feeling like there is an elephant on their chest, pain radiating down their left arm, jaw and neck pain.
The most common heart attack symptom in women is indeed some type of pain, pressure or discomfort in the chest. But it is not always severe or even the most prominent symptom, particularly in women. And, sometimes, women may have a heart attack without chest pain. Women are more likely than men to have heart attack symptoms unrelated to chest pain, such as:
> Neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back or abdominal discomfort
> Shortness of breath
> Pain in one or both arms
> Nausea or vomiting
> Lightheadedness or dizziness
> Unusual fatigue
However, for women the signs can be that of nausea, lightheadedness, back pain, stomach pain as well as those other classic signs. Also, some women may have no previous symptoms. These symptoms can be more subtle than the obvious crushing chest pain often associated with heart attacks. Women may describe chest pain as pressure or a tightness.
Women's symptoms may occur more often when women are resting, or even when they're asleep. Mental stress also may trigger heart attack symptoms in women.
Women often show up in emergency rooms after heart damage has already occurred because their symptoms are not those usually associated with a heart attack, and because women may downplay their symptoms. If you experience these symptoms or think you're having a heart attack, call for emergency medical help immediately. Don't drive yourself to the emergency room unless you have no other options.
Exercise to reduce the risk of heart disease in women
In general, everybody should do moderate exercise, such as walking at a brisk pace, on most days of the week. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity, 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week, or a combination of moderate and vigorous activity. That's about 30 minutes a day, five days a week.
For even more health benefits, aim for 300 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 150 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week. That's about 60 minutes a day, five days a week. In addition, aim to do strength training exercises two or more days a week.
If you can't get all of your exercise completed in one session, try breaking up your physical activity into several 10-minute sessions during a day. You'll still get the same heart-health benefits.
Is heart disease something only older women should worry about?
No. Women of all ages should take heart disease seriously. Women under the age of 65, and especially those with a family history of heart disease, need to pay close attention to heart disease risk factors.
What can women do to reduce their risk of heart disease?
Women can make several lifestyle changes to reduce the risk of heart disease, including:
> Quit or don't start smoking.
> Exercise regularly.
> Maintain a healthy weight.
> Eat a healthy diet that includes whole grains, a variety of fruits and vegetables, low-fat or fat-free dairy products, and lean meats. Avoid saturated or trans fat, added sugars, and high amounts of salt.