Recently while in an exam room waiting to see my cardiologist I was glancing around the room looking at all of the fliers or printed information on the walls and one definitely caught my attention.
It said “Heart Disease Is A Woman’s Disease.” I was intrigued and was just about to walk over and read it when my doctor came in.
I did not get the chance to read it before I left, but I determined in my mind to do some research when I got home.
To say I was impressed just isn’t accurate. I learned some pretty interesting things, some of which I wished I had known before developing heart disease myself which led to a triple bypass surgery, a heart attack with damage to my heart including heart failure, and many other things that affected my life such as little to no exercise tolerance.
One of the first things I learned was by far the most impressive. According to the American Heart Association, heart disease is often thought to be more of a health issue affecting men. However, it is the most common cause of death for women in the United States, causing about 300,000 deaths annually.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) goes so far as to say that, despite some increase in awareness, only about 56% of women recognize that heart disease is their number one killer, resulting in about one in every five female deaths.
Another very interesting fact I learned is that, although some symptoms of heart disease are common to both men and women, some women have subtle changes or no symptoms at all until they have a heart attack.
The most common symptoms for both men and women are dull and heavy or sharp chest pain or discomfort; pain in the neck, jaw or throat; and pain in the upper abdomen or back. These symptoms may occur either at rest or with activity.
However, women sometimes react differently with other, more common feelings of a simple virus which could also be from heart disease. These symptoms include nausea, vomiting, indigestion, anxiety, dizziness and fatigue. In addition, there may be a nonspecific feeling that something is just not right about the way they are feeling and stress may be involved.
All of these symptoms are warning signs that may come and go for months or even years; therefore women pay little attention to them until an actual heart attack occurs.
The CDC website refers to heart disease as sometimes “silent” and symptoms may be ignored if they go away. At some point other, more serious, symptoms or emergencies may develop including heart attack, arrhythmia (fluttering feelings or palpitations in the chest), and heart failure. Some or all of these symptoms may be present in an acute emergency of heart attack or heart disease or even heart failure: shortness of breath, fatigue, swelling of the feet, ankles, legs, abdomen, or neck veins, and profuse sweating.
The CDC recommends calling 911 right away if any of these symptoms occur and that applies to both men and women.
As serious as heart disease is, there are some things both men and women can do to reduce their chances of having a heart attack. First, know the three key risk factors for heart disease according to the CDC: high blood pressure (nearly half of American adults have it and don’t even know it); high cholesterol; and smoking. About half of all people in the United States have at least one of these risk factors.
Several other medical conditions and lifestyle choices can also put people at a higher risk for heart disease, including diabetes, being overweight, an unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, and drinking too much alcohol. A doctor must check for and diagnose diabetes, but the other risk factors are very much within our control to change.
On a personal note, I must mention one other risk factor for heart disease and that is heredity. My father died at age 59 from his third heart attack and therefore I was at risk also. I had known this since I was old enough to understand it all, but I took no interest in risk factors or taking care of myself the way I should have.
I ate anything I wanted, never got regular checkups with a doctor, and I was a workaholic who got little rest and had lots of stress.
The years went by and I began to notice what I thought were little things, things like not being able to walk as fast or not being able to be as active. Then I began to have episodes of just “feeling funny” in my chest.
This went on for at least two years until I went to the emergency room one evening convinced I was having a heart attack, but all tests were negative. I was thankful but the symptoms only got worse over more time.
In the interest of space, suffice it to say that I was the youngest patient in the University of Tennessee Cardiac Care ICU after having to have a triple bypass at age 53. It was due to massive coronary artery blockages. That was just the beginning of my heart problems, as two to three years later I had a heart attack which damaged my heart, leaving me with heart failure.
I wrote this column hoping that women especially will read it and pay particular attention to the different ways they can experience warning signs of heart disease.
I wish I had read something like this years ago. With my father’s history I believe I would have taken more interest in my own risk factors and perhaps saved a few years of illness.
Whether you are a man or a woman, if you have experienced anything you’ve read in this column, it is imperative that you take control of your risk factors and see a doctor.
Don’t wait until it is too late.
Haroldean Thompson is an Etowah resident and can be reached at email@example.com