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Womens Guide to Heart Health

There is little equality between the sexes in heart attack symptoms.


Updated September 11, 2006

If you ask most women over the age of 50 what they think is the greatest threat to their health and life most will mistakenly answer cancer. Over the last few years cancer, specifically breast, uterine and ovarian cancer have been in the spotlight as women's biggest health concern. But women face an even greater threat from heart diseases. Heart disease and heart attacks claim the lives of more American women than men each year, and pose a greater threat to American women than all forms of cancer combined.
While most women can tell you the "classic" symptoms of heart attack most do not realize that a women's symptoms can be very different. This may significantly delay life saving treatment. It is a well documented fact that prompt recognition and treatment of heart attack can save lives.
Dr. Bairey Merz of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center offers the following heart tips that are especially for women:

1. If you're over age 18, have your blood pressure checked annually; over age 45, have your blood cholesterol and blood sugar checked each year; and if you have a family history of heart disease in a relative prior to the age of 60, especially in a female relative, ask your physician to do these tests at earlier ages and to consider additional tests such as treadmill testing and other heart disease screening tests.

2. Be aware that the symptoms for women having a heart attack are often different from those of a man, but any of the following symptoms can occur in men and women:

Squeezing chest pain or pressure
Shortness of breath
Tightness in chest
Pain spreading to shoulders, neck or arm

Indigestion or gas-like pain
Dizziness, nausea or vomiting
Unexplained weakness, fatigue
Discomfort/pain between shoulder blades
Recurring chest discomfort
Sense of impending doom

3. Talk to your doctor or gynecologist regularly about your heart health. Be proactive in bringing this topic up for discussion. Ask for a thorough assessment of your heart disease risk factors: family history, cholesterol -- especially LDL, HDL and triglycerides -- glucose (blood sugar) levels, blood pressure, smoking history, weight, stress and exercise. If you have risk factors, formulate a plan with your doctor to reduce or eliminate or reduce them.

4. If you have one or more risk factors, ask your doctor or gynecologist if you should have an electrocardiogram (ECG) or exercise stress test.

5. Ask your doctor or gynecologist to review risk factors for heart disease and heart attack symptoms during your annual check-up. Discuss these with your family and friends, along with the importance of calling 9-1-1 if these symptoms occur.

6. Tell your doctor or gynecologist about any personal or family history of heart disease.

7. Make sure you understand any medications or special instructions your doctor has given you, including when you need to have follow-up tests.

8. Be aware of your diet and lifestyle. Read labels and avoid foods that are high in saturated fats. Aim to eat 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables each day. Whenever possible, climb the stairs instead of riding the elevator, and look for other ways to get more exercise.

9. Don't smoke! If you do smoke, stop.

10. If you are experiencing symptoms that could be a signal of a heart attack, call 9-1-1 and get to the emergency room quickly to minimize possible damage to your heart.

11. Consider taking aspirin at the first sign of heart attack symptoms. Discuss this with your doctor.

12. Check out nearby cardiac rehabilitation centers and community programs to help you stop smoking, get regular exercise, lose weight and reduce stress.
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