The Threat to a Woman's Heart

The first step in preventing heart disease in women may be getting them to understand their risk. Surveys show that almost 60% believe breast cancer poses the greatest danger: in fact, heart disease kills six times as many women.

Chest discomfort is the most common heart attack symptom for both sexes, but women are more likely to have less obvious symptoms, such as excessive tiredness, nausea, cold sweats, dizziness or even indigestion. Symptoms may be constant or come and go and can disrupt your sleep—sometimes appearing several weeks beforehand.

And because their symptoms are more subtle, they delay care, typically waiting three to four times longer to go to the ED than men. “With the Hollywood-style heart attack of sudden crushing chest pain, everyone knows what to do,” says Eugene Byun, MD, an interventional cardiologist at Providence St. Jude who specializes in opening up blocked arteries using minimally invasive catheter procedures. “But when the symptoms are less clear, such as jaw or back pain, shortness of breath, fatigue or vomiting, it’s easier to ignore them.”

His advice? Err on the side of caution. “If you’re having a heart attack, we want to open up that blocked artery as quickly as possible,” he explains. “If it turns out you’re not, you can laugh about it later: laughter always ages better than regret.”

For any woman, the time to reduce your risk is now. “Excess weight, inactivity, diabetes, and inflammatory conditions such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis all increase your risk,” explains Dr. Byun. “Tennis shoes and heart-healthy food choices, such as the Mediterranean diet, are great places to start.”

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