“Relax, you are 5 times more likely to die of a heart attack than breast cancer,” the technician said. I was at my first mammogram, the technician attempting to allay my fears of the big C. Admittedly it worked.
In that moment with my boob squished impossibly flat, I imagined myself, really old and wrinkly, dramatically clutching my chest and sinking gracefully to the floor. My final swan song. Because only OLD people have heart attacks. Like, really old people.
And she’s right. According to breastcancer.org, 41,760 women in the United States are expected to die of breast cancer in 2019. That’s 1 in 31 women. The latest statistics from the CDC on heart disease? Shows 289,758 women died in 2013 from heart disease.
1 in 4. That’s approximately one woman every minute that dies from heart disease.
But I was wrong. Apparently I’m not too young to have a heart attack. A 20-year study published in the American Heart Association’s journal, Circulation, found that heart attacks are on the rise in younger women, aged 35-54 years. Between 2010 and 2014, younger women made up 31 percent of hospitalizations for heart attacks. An increase of 10 percent from the late 1990s.
Heart disease is the number one cause of death in men and WOMEN in the United States but “Women are under-researched, under-diagnosed and under-treated, under-supported and under-aware,” says Yves Savoie, CEO of the Heart & Stroke Foundation.
Huh, you don’t say.
Part of the problem is that women often display atypical symptoms of a heart attack, that are often misdiagnosed as anything from indigestion, acid reflux, anxiety, the flu, and menopause. Physicians commonly downplay a woman’s “complaints” attributing them to everyday stress and panic attacks.
They are also less likely to prescribe preventative therapies and medications to women than men.
Shocking, I know.
So what are the signs of a heart attack in women?
In addition to chest pain or discomfort here are some lesser known symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic:
- Neck, jaw, throat, shoulder, upper back or abdominal discomfort
- Shortness of breath
- Pain and/or tingling in one or both arms
- Nausea or vomiting
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
- Unusual fatigue or unexplained weakness
- Sleep disturbances
- A feeling of impending doom
Oftentimes, these symptoms present months before an attack, coming and going, and intensify during a cardiac event.
Elizabeth Banks produced a short video entitled “Just a Little Heart Attack” on the topic for Go Red For Women and the AHA.
Take a look:
Look, women are notoriously horrible at self-care. We are so busy just trying to keep all the moving parts of our lives well, moving, that we tend to ignore ourselves.
We push through, we soldier on, we suck it up. We wait until we are knee deep in our own vomit with a raging fever, and drunk on delirium, before we admit that “Yes, it’s possible I may be coming down with something.”
We put off that dental cleaning for three years because who really needs teeth anyway? We reschedule our annual physical over and over and over again until suddenly five years have passed. We ignore the symptoms of our own heart attack because who has time for that?
If you do suspect you’re having a heart attack? Here are some things NOT to do:
- Ignore it.
- Pop an aspirin and declare thyself healed. By all means, pop an aspirin but call 9-1-1.
- Tell yourself it will just go away and finish cleaning the toilet.
- Tell yourself you’ll deal with it after you finish making dinner, helping the kids with homework, picking up your oldest from soccer practice, writing just one more work email, feeding the dog, signing permission slips, brushing your toddler’s teeth, putting the kids to bed…
- Drive yourself to the hospital.
What you should do if you think you’re having a heart attack?
STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING AND CALL FOR HELP. That’s it. The sooner you can be assessed and treated, the greater your chances for survival.
There are a number of risk factors that increase our odds of suffering a heart attack. Many of these are shared by both men and women. They include:
- Mental Stress
- Lack of physical exercise
- High Blood Pressure
- Auto-Immune Disease
- Family History
However, women also have additional risk factors that are unique from men. Because of course we do:
- Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT)
- Oral Contraceptives
- Pregnancy Complications such as high blood pressure and gestational diabetes
February is heart health month – so take some time for yourself and get checked out by a doctor if you are concerned that you might have an issue. And, get regular physical checkups, too.
Before you throw up your hands in defeat and give yourself over to the heart attack gods, there is good news.
The reality is that we can lower our risk of heart disease by 80 percent. 80 whopping percent. A healthy diet and regular physical activity go a long way. As do managing our stress and getting enough sleep. We also need to be better at advocating for our own health and more proactive in ensuring our hearts are healthy with annual check-ups and screenings.
Know the symptoms of a heart attack. And if you are experiencing any? Get checked out. Your life may very well depend on it.