Heart disease is the number one killer of women, striking down one in every three women, compared to one in 30 who dies of breast cancer according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. One form of heart disease, a heart attack, can strike suddenly and with no advance warning. Learning more about heart attacks now can help protect you in the future.
Each year, about 1.1 million Americans suffer a heart attack, also known as a coronary attack or myocardial infarction. A heart attack occurs when a blocked artery stops blood flow to a portion of the heart. Blockages are generally caused by atherosclerosis, a thickening and hardening of the artery. First, fat, cholesterol and other substances build up over time into plaque in the blood, which is deposited on the artery wall. Eventually some of the plaque may break off, with a blood clot forming around it. This clot can block a coronary artery, cutting blood flow to the heart.
Nearly two-thirds of American women who died suddenly of a heart attack had no prior symptoms. But knowing your risk factors can help you make smart health choices that may prevent a heart attack, and may help you be more prepared in the event that an attack occurs. Some risk factors are uncontrollable: A family history of heart disease, and being 55 years old or older. Other risk factors can be controlled by adopting smart health habits and, when necessary, the use of medication or medical procedures. Controllable factors are smoking (or exposure to secondhand smoke), high blood pressure, high cholesterol, being overweight, physical inactivity, diabetes, stress and drinking too much alcohol.
Talk to your health care provider about your risk of heart attack. A health care professional can give you more information about various tools you can use to protect your heart, including smoking cessation programs, an exercise regimen, nutrition counseling, blood pressure screenings and cholesterol testing.
KNOW THE WARNING SIGNS
Many people delay getting help during a possible heart attack because they think their symptoms may turn out to be a false alarm – but every minute counts. If you or a loved one experiences any of the following symptoms, call 911 and seek immediate attention – even if you’re not sure it’s a heart attack.
• Chest discomfort that lasts more than a few minutes. The discomfort may feel like pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain; range from mild to severe; and come and go.
• Pain or discomfort in other areas of the upper body, including one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
• Shortness of breath.
• Other symptoms, such as nausea, light-headedness or breaking out in a cold sweat.
In women as with men, the most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, especially shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.
FOR YOUR NEXT OFFICE VISIT
Questions to ask your doctor:
1. What is my risk for heart disease?
2. What are my blood pressure, cholesterol (total, LDL, HDL and triglycerides), body mass index and blood glucose numbers, and what do they mean?
3. What other screening tests for heart disease do I need?
4. What can you do to help me quit smoking?
5. How can I tell if I may be having a heart attack?
KNOW YOUR NUMBERS
Blood Pressure: Date/Blood Pressure.
Blood Glucos: Date/Blood Glucose Level.
Weight: Date/Weight/Body Mass Index (BMI).
Source: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.