Women: Listen to Your Heart

Despite the fact that public health experts have mounted a huge campaign for the past decade or more to inform women about the different ways that a heart attack can present itself, all the statistics show that we women are still waiting too long to call for help. I believe that one of the reasons has to do with our nature: Most of us live in the land of denial. We do not think that something like a heart attack can happen to us. And we’re so busy taking care of others that we often ignore our own symptoms.

But our bodies are trying to get our attention. Recently, researchers at the National Institutes of Health looked at women who’d had a heart attack and found that 95 percent of them said they’d experienced symptoms that were unusual for them a month beforehand. The most common ones: unusual fatigue, sleep problems, shortness of breath, indigestion and anxiety.

This information is important, because despite all the research and pushes for public awareness, heart disease is still the number one cause of death in men AND women.  Risk factors include a family history of heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes, lack of exercise, smoking, stress, and low levels of magnesium. But even if you don’t have any of these risk factors, if you are a woman and you experience symptoms, you should take notice. If you start feeling overwhelming fatigue (like you do with a bad flu, but you don’t have the flu), trouble sleeping, anxiety, a sense of dread, shortness of breath, vague chest or jaw discomfort, you may be on the verge of a heart attack – or you may be having one! 

If that is the case, do NOT drive yourself to the emergency room.  Do NOT wait until a friend or family member can take you to the emergency room. Do NOT ignore the symptoms. DO call 911 and chew an aspirin while you wait (provided you are not allergic to aspirin).

The reason you should call 911 is that you want to be cared for as soon as possible. As most cardiologists will tell you, time is muscle – heart muscle. If you take yourself to the emergency room, you may have to wait, and that might have tragic consequences. Many years ago, I had a patient who’d experienced a heart attack while she sat for three hours in the waiting room of a hospital emergency room. Do not let that happen to you. The longer you wait the greater the chance you will sustain long-lasting heart damage. The sooner you get help, the better your chances of a full recovery.

We women are learning: A study just out in the journal Circulation shows that between 1997 and 2012, the stats doubled in terms of women’s awareness that heart disease could kill them. But we definitely have further to go. So here’s something to remember: Women may be self-sacrificing, but we have really good gut instincts. So listen to your intuition. If you think that something is wrong with your heart, you are probably right. Take care of your heart, so it can take care of you.

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File under: In the News


Robin Miller

Dr. Robin Miller, Sharecare Editorial Advisory Board Member, currently practices Internal Medicine and serves as the medical director of Triune Integrative Medicine, a highly innovative Integrative Medicine clinic in Medford, Oregon. She has produced the award-winning health series, “Is there a Doctor in the House,” which is shown nationwide on the GE-sponsored Patient Channel, and is the author of "Kids Ask the Doctor" and the co-author of “The Smart Woman's Guide to Midlife and Beyond: A No-Nonsense Approach to Staying Healthy after 50".

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