National Go Red for Women day is Feb. 2. To increase awareness about the symptoms of women’s heart disease and stroke, the American Heart Association asks us to wear red on that day, which is a Friday.

Now is a good time to learn about women’s heart attack symptoms and how they can be different from men’s symptoms. Heart disease is the number one killer of women. It causes one of every three deaths of American women – about one death every 80 seconds.

Knowledge is your best defense against death or disability from heart disease. Heart disease includes heart attacks, coronary artery disease, heart failure, stroke and high blood pressure. Your heart is a muscle. When some part of the muscle can’t get enough blood, a heart attack can occur. Most heart attacks are caused by a blockage in one or more vessels that supply blood to the heart.

The faster you can recognize heart attack symptoms and get help to restore blood flow to your heart, the less permanent damage will result. It’s important to know the warning signs because “time is muscle.” The longer you wait to get help after symptoms start, the more damage is done to your heart muscle. If you wait more than four hours, there’s not much that can be done to prevent permanent damage.

What causes women’s heart attacks?

  • Coronary heart disease (CHD) – or coronary artery disease – is a condition where the coronary arteries (blood vessels that flow into the heart) are clogged with plaque and cholesterol
  • Coronary artery spasm can be the result of stimulant-drug use or long-term tobacco use
  • Tear in the heart artery
  • Serious illnesses can include uncontrolled high blood pressure, pneumonia, sudden stress or stroke
  • Unhealthy lifestyle choices, or how we lead our lives, causes most heart disease. The choices we make about our lifestyle can determine if our heart is healthy or diseased.

Other risk factors that you have no control over include:

  • Family history of heart disease can greatly increase your risk
  • Aging – heart attacks are more common in women after age 60
  • Race – blacks are more likely to have heart disease and Hispanics are less likely, compared to whites
  • Menopause causes lower levels of estrogen, a significant risk factor for developing cardiovascular disease in smaller blood vessels
  • Pregnancy complications, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, increase long-term risk of heart disease
  • Inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus can lead to heart damage

Women’s symptoms different than men’s

Women’s heart attack symptoms are different and more subtle than men’s symptoms. Some women never have any symptoms and about 20 percent of heart attacks occur without the patient noticing symptoms. Women’s heart attack symptoms are more likely to include the following:

  • Breathing problems such as shortness of breath, even when sitting still and not tied to physical activity
  • Chest pain, pressure, tightness or discomfort, but NOT the crushing pain that men usually have; a burning sensation in the chest
  • Neck, jaw, shoulder or upper back pain or discomfort
  • Pain in one or both arms
  • Heavy sweating not related to stress or activity
  • Extreme fatigue that doesn’t lessen with rest
  • Nausea, vomiting or stomach discomfort
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Confusion
  • Problems sleeping – this symptom may precede an attack by weeks or months
  • Overall, feeling physically awful, especially in the weeks before an attack
  • Less common symptoms include flu-like symptoms or fainting when an attack begins

Women especially may have some or all the above symptoms one or two weeks before a heart attack. Any of the symptoms above should be checked by a doctor without delay.

12 top prevention tips:

  • Treat high blood pressure. Get it tested regularly and take your blood pressure medications every day as prescribed.
  • Quit smoking and avoid secondhand smoke. There are pills, patches, counseling and support groups to help you quit tobacco. Talk with your doctor about options for quitting as part of your personal health plan. Many insurance plans cover smoking cessation. Your heart begins to repair the damage done by tobacco as soon as you quit smoking.
  • Treat diabetes if you have it; get tested regularly for diabetes if you’re over age 45.
  • Have cholesterol tested regularly and treat it as your doctor recommends.
  • Know your numbers – blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and body mass index (BMI) – and know what numbers your doctor wants you to maintain.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Eat healthy by focusing on vegetables and fruits, whole grains, lean means and smaller portions. Reduce salt, sugar, and saturated and trans fats (in salad dressings, cooking oil, crackers, snack foods). If you need to change your eating habits, do it slowly. Changing eating habits is one of the most difficult habits to change. Start with small changes you can maintain. For example, try one of these small changes every month:
    • reduce or eliminate sugary soft drinks
    • don’t buy cookies, high-calorie snack foods or desserts (you can’t eat them if you don’t buy them)
    • add an extra daily serving of fruit or vegetable, until you regularly eat five to nine servings daily (one serving = one-half cup)
    • reduce or eliminate fast foods; get in the habit of cooking an extra portion of dinner so you can pack a healthy lunch for tomorrow
    • reduce processed foods like hot dogs, lunchmeat, sausage and bacon and substitute with fish, seafood, chicken and turkey without the skin, beans, eggs, nuts and seeds
    • switch to healthy oils like olive, canola, peanut, sesame; use soft margarine instead of stick
    • try different whole grain foods
    • if you drink beer, wine or alcohol, do so in moderation
  • Get moving. As little as 30 minutes of walking, most days of the week, can improve your blood pressure, weight, cholesterol levels and reduce stress and depression. Any activity and any amount of activity helps. Look for ways to include extra activity in your day – climb stairs, vacuum, walk the dog, dance or play a sport. Get an exercise buddy for more motivation and support. Work up to a minimum of 30 minutes a day.
  • Get plenty of sleep.
  • Treat mental stress and depression because women’s hearts are more affected by these issues. Stress reducers include exercise, a brief nap, listening to music, prayer or meditation.
  • Avoid stimulant drugs and street drugs.
  • Participate in cardiac rehabilitation, if prescribed.

 For more information:

  • Go Red for Women website
  • American Heart Association, Arkansas chapter website
  • National Institutes of Health, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute website