I wasn’t prepared for the statistics I heard at “Heart Disease and Stroke”, a presentation by St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA. What drew me to attend was a piece of information I’d read that women’s symptoms for heart attacks are different from men’s. That surprised me and I wanted to know more.
Let’s get the figures out of the way first:
- while 40 to 60% of women are concerned about dying of breast cancer, only 4% do,
- but 53% of us will die from a cardiovascular disease.
- even more frightening, 63% of women who die of a heart attack had no previous symptoms.
- plus we tend to suffer from such episodes later in life
- and, once we do, the effects are more devastating and our subsequent life span shorter than for men.
Prevention in breast cancer has drilled into us the need for regular mammograms. But how many of us regularly check our cholesterol, heart pressure or the state of our arteries? If we don’t, it’s time we start. When it comes to cardiovascular diseases, prevention goes a long way into protecting our health. And life-style corrections are easier to implement.
Who is at risk?
Like cancer, there are factors beyond our control: increasing age and heredity in particular. If anyone in your family suffered a heart attack or stroke early in life (between 40 and 50), you should have yourself checked regularly. At the age of 50, it’s common for your doctor to prescribe a stress test (you know, the one where they put you on a treadmill and check how your heart reacts to exercise). But cholesterol can take decades to build up in your arteries, and it’s possible to pass a stress test with flying colors even if your heart is in danger. Which is why, if you are at risk, other diagnostic tools (such as an ultrasound of your arteries) might be called for.
Even if heredity does not figure in your chart, obesity, high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes, physical inactivity, certain blood disorder, excessive alcohol intake and stress (more of that later) pose real risks. With medications and/or lifestyle changes, all these predictors can be modified.
Signs you might be suffering from a heart attack
A heart attack occurs when blood flow to a part of your heart is blocked for long enough that the heart muscle is damaged or dies. The medical term for this is myocardial infarction. The most characteristic symptoms are a tightness of the chest, pain in the left arm, sweating and dizziness. For women in particular, shortness of breath and nausea are two symptoms that often occur, sometimes in the absence of chest pains altogether.
Signs you might be suffering from a stroke
A stroke is an injury to the brain tissue which can be caused by:
- a travelling blood clot (embolus)
- a blockage of the artery due to plaque (thrombosis)
- bleeding in the brain (a blood vessel that breaks)
It’s important to recognize signs of stroke in other people, and here is what to look for:
- Does one side of the face droop? Ask the person to smile
- Is one arm weak or numb? Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
- Is speech slurred? Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence
As the window of opportunity to administer medication to stop a stroke is only 3 hours, if you or someone near you, is experiencing one or all of these symptoms, don’t hesitate to call the emergency number.
A word on stress and other emotional factors
Whoever coined the word “stress” sometime around 1545, probably didn’t mean anything other than “exerted force”. But mention the word stress to anyone today: and the pace and demands of our everyday life, added to our worries and fears spring immediately to mind.
Did you know there is such a thing as Broken Heart Syndrome? And, not surprisingly, 89% of those suffering from it are…you guessed it, women.
Hostility, anger, major disastrous events (death of a family member, a move, divorce etc) can all be covered by an ever-expanding stress umbrella. Managing stress is so key, that UK- based Aviva Health Insurance has a nifty, easily downloadable Stress App that evaluates your stress level. It even tells you what you can do about it, providing a bank of useful stress tips.
Deep breathing and yoga are clinically proven to slow our heart rate and decrease stress. 10 minutes a day of sitting quietly practicing a simple breathing technique or stilling your mind by focussing on one object – go a long way to calm us when the world around us feels like it’s spinning out of control.
Lastly – for some of us, it’s easier to take care of others before taking care of ourselves. But it’s never too late to start.
The doctors who illuminated me on cardiovascular disease, and much more, are:
Daniel Wohlgerlenter, MD, FACC
Interventional Cardiologist, Medical Director of the Post Coronary Care Unit at St. John’s Health Center
Michael Gold, MD, FAAN
Consultative Neurologist – St. John’s Health Center
Nicole M. Weinberg, MD, FACC
Consultative, Non-Invasive Cardiologist – St. John’s Medical Center