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Protecting Women’s Hearts: Knowing the Signs and Symptoms of Heart Disease

Ask a woman to tell you her greatest health risk and she’s likely to say cancer. But heart disease — also known as cardiovascular disease — is actually the number one killer of women in the United States. There are nearly 48 million women living with or at risk of heart disease, but only 18% of women consider it to be the greatest health problem facing American women. It is critically important for women to understand the signs, symptoms, treatments and perhaps most notably, that heart disease in women is different from what men experience.   

Take the story of a Pennsylvania woman who had no idea she was having a heart attack. “I didn’t pay attention to my own symptoms,” says WomenHeart Champion Robin Olson, a heart disease survivor and advocate who raises heart health awareness in her community. “I had radiating pain down the left side of my arm and I thought it was a pinched nerve. When I got to the hospital [the doctors] told me I was having a heart attack. I thought I was just having pain in my arm.” Unfortunately, there are many stories like Olson’s, as women often mistake heart disease symptoms for fatigue, stress or another health issue.

What are the symptoms?

Every woman is different, so the symptoms of a heart attack can differ. Here are some key warning signs to look out for:

  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, usually with exertion
  • Stomach or abdominal pain, usually with exertion
  • Pressure or pain that spreads to the shoulders, neck, upper back, jaw or arms with exertion
  • Crushing chest pain
  • Unexplained feelings of anxiety, fatigue or weakness, particularly with exertion
  • Dizziness or nausea

If you are ever experiencing any of these symptoms, you should consult with your doctor. Don’t hesitate to call 911 if the symptoms you are experiencing are severe.

Knowing your risk factors

A crucial step toward prevention is for women to know their risk of developing heart disease. Some risk factors are modifiable, meaning you can take steps to change them. Others are non-modifiable and cannot be changed, such as:

  • Family history of heart disease
  • Age (although heart disease can affect young women as well)
  • Race/ethnicity

Modifiable risk factors include:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Weight

While managing these risk factors, it is very important for women to exercise, maintain a healthy diet and schedule regular checkups with a physician.

Organizations like WomenHeart: The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease are leading the charge to increase awareness about heart disease. It is the nation’s first and only patient-centered organization serving the millions of American women living with or at risk for heart disease. WomenHeart supports, educates and advocates on behalf of these women. The organization offers in-person and virtual support groups.

Eileen Hsich, WomenHeart Scientific Advisory Council Chair and Cleveland Clinic Associate Medical Director for Heart Transplants, [email protected]

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