When most people think of a heart attack, they think of crushing chest pain–but that isn't always the case. A study published in the February 2012 Journal of the American Medical Association found that many young and middle-aged women who have a heart attack don't experience chest pain.
“Women may have harder-to-recognize symptoms such as pain in the jaw, neck, shoulders or back, sudden trouble breathing and developing a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness,” says Tracy L. Stevens, M.D., a cardiologist at St. Luke's Health System in Kansas City, Mo., and a national spokesperson for the American Heart Association. “Anyone who is having new and persistent symptoms that can't be explained should seek medical attention.”
Stevens says that heart attack symptoms can often be more subtle in women and they may also be quicker to write their symptoms off as an anxiety attack. Indigestion that doesn't respond to antacids, shortness of breath or new or overwhelming fatigue that lasts a week or longer can all be symptoms of a heart attack.
“If you are having new symptoms such as extreme fatigue, don't be tempted to dismiss your symptoms,” Stevens says. “If you suspect you are having a heart attack, especially if you have known cardiac risk factors, it's important to call 9-1-1 [or an emergency response number].”
Stevens says the AHA's Go Red for Women campaign can help make it easier for women to take ownership of their heart health. At goredforwomen.org, women can get heart-healthy meal ideas, read inspirational stories from real women who have overcome heart disease, assess their own heart health risk and learn how to make positive lifestyle changes.
“You have to be proactive about your health and be physically active and make healthy decisions on a daily basis,” says Stevens. She emphasizes the 90/10 rule, noting that it's what you do 90 percent of the time that makes a difference, not 10 percent of the time.
While changing your diet may seem challenging, Stevens says the Go Red for Women website offers many easy, family-friendly recipes that promote fresh fruits, vegetables and fish.
In addition to adhering to a healthy diet, Stevens stresses the importance of being your own health advocate and knowing your cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
“Don't be passive about your health,” she says. “Seventy-two percent of women didn't discuss their heart health at their last doctor's visit. It's important to talk to your doctor about potential cardiac risks and to address those risks before you have a heart attack.”
To be proactive about your heart health, Stevens says to follow these guidelines:
- Stay physically active.
- Reduce stress.
- Keep your waistline under 35 inches (measure just above the belly button).
- Avoid processed foods