Are you surprised that heart attack is the number one cause of death for women? I was. I wrote a paper for my Behavioral Medicine class in my graduate program in Psychology about women and heart disease. I learned so much about women’s heart attack symptoms and important screening exams that I thought I’d share some of what I learned with my loyal workingwellresources readers!
A heart attack, also known as a myocardial infarction, is considered to be an acute manifestation of cardiovascular disease. Heart attacks are usually caused when a blockage of the blood vessels supplying the heart with oxygenated blood causes blood to cease flowing to an area of the heart, causing that portion of the heart to be damaged or die. These blockages are most frequently caused by fatty deposits or plaque that builds up in the inner walls of arterial blood vessels. Symptoms for a heart attack are different in women than for men. In women, a heart attack may be occurring when a woman feels pressure or fullness in the center of the chest for more than a few minutes. However, in men, heart attacks are often reported as feelings of intense discomfort or pressure in the chest. Women may experience shortness of breath even without chest discomfort. Women may also break out into a cold sweat feel nauseated or light-headed during a heart attack. In women, a heart attack can also manifest as shortness of breath, pain or discomfort in the back and/or jaw and nausea or vomiting. Men and woman can feel pain or pressure in the chest, but because symptoms tend to be less severe in women with heart attacks, many woman ignore the symptoms or take an aspirin and go to bed, thinking they have the flu, acid reflex or are just getting older. And since women tend to have heart attacks, on average, 10 years later than men, female heart attack victims tend to have a higher tendency to occur along with other chronic disease like diabetes or hypertension which puts them at greater risk than men for heart attacks to be fatal.
According to the American Heart Association, each year approximately 785,000 U.S. citizens have an initial heart attack and another 470,000 have a recurrent heart attack. In 2007, according to the American Heart Association, 391, 886 U.S. men and 421, 918 U.S. women died of heart attacks.
Current medical treatment for hear disease includes prevention in the form of eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, and avoiding tobacco smoke, first and second-hand. Those that have heart attacks and survive them, as well as those with high cholesterol and/or high blood pressure, can lower the risk of another heart attack by taking statins to lower cholesterol, drugs to lower blood pressure and aspirin.
When a woman is having a heart attack, she needs emergency medical care in the form of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or electric shock (defibrillation) until she can get to the hospital. At the hospital, medical personnel will conduct tests to decide if she is experiencing a heart attack and determine the best course of treatment depending on the severity of the attack and her general health.
For those with heart disease, or for those surviving heart attacks, surgeries such as coronary artery bypass, balloon angioplasties, heart valve repair and replacement and heart transplants are available. For some patients, there are also medical implants that can help keep their heart operating, including pacemakers to keep the heart beating regularly, prosthetic valves to replace faulty heart valves and patches which can be used to close holes in the heart muscle.
Psychological Factors Affecting Risk, Onset, Severity and Recovery
Since women tend to have less severe symptoms of heart attack and tend to be caretakers of others, females may not take signs of a heart attack as seriously and may not seek appropriate medical attention. In addition, since women tend to have greater Cardiovascular diseases like heart attacks, on average 10 years later than men, females may discount the severity of the attack, thinking their symptoms are a sign of aging or are not serious enough to go to the hospital. If a weakened heart is left untreated, by the time a woman has a serious heart attack, it is likely to be more severe than a man’s heart attack for these reasons. And lastly, since women tend to be caretakers, after a heart attack, females may not feel comfortable taking the required time to recover and may push themselves to go back to work or childcare before they are fully recovered, thus increasing the risk of re-occurrence of a heart attack.
Sociocultural and Economic Influences
Aside from females being underrepresented in clinical trails for heart disease, over 80% of fatalities from heart diseases occur in people living in low-income and middle-income countries. Some of the risk factors for heart disease in low and middle-income countries include poverty and stress, as well as unhealthy diets and sedentary lifestyles. People in these countries also tend to have reduced access to effective health care including early detection. So being poor and having a stressful life with little exercise and a poor diet makes you a winner–in the heart attack game, that is. And who wants to “win” by having a heart attack?!
Since 80% of coronary heart disease is caused by behavioral risk factors such as poor diet, lack of exercise and cigarette smoking, you can reduce your risk of having a heart attack by engaging in healthier lifestyle behaviors such as quitting smoking, eating more vegetables and fruits and exercising more. Isn’t this list of healthy lifestyle behaviors becoming repetitive? It seems that most of our health problems, obesity, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure–all share the same common lifestyle risk factors of poor diet, not getting enough movement in our bodies easy day and cutting down on tobacco smoking and alcohol drinking. But even if you don’t engage in these unhealthy behaviors, getting regular medical exams for blood pressure and cholesterol tend to be lower your risk of having a heart attack. Lastly, learning stress management techniques as well as coping skills to better manage stress in your live can help your heart beat more easily, help your body overall work better and help you feel better and live longer!
So what is your game plan to reduce your risk of having a heart attack? I’d like to hear from you!
American Heart Association (2012) Heart Attack Symptoms in Women. (http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/HeartAttack/WarningSignsofaHeartAttack/Warning-Signs-of-a-Heart-Attack_UCM_002039_Article.jsp.)
Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2012) Heart Disease. (http://www.cdc.gov/HeartDisease/coronary_ad.htm/)
Mayo Clinic (2011). Heart disease. (http://mayoclinic.com/health/heart-disease/DS01120).
McSweeny, J.C., Cody, M., Elbertson, K., Moser, D.K., Garvin, B.J. (2003) Women’s early warning symptoms of acute myocardial infarction. Circulation 108(21), 2619-23.
Roger, V.L., Go. A.S., Lloyd-Jones, D.M., Adams, R.J., Berry, J.D., Brown, T.M.,…Wylie-Rosett, J. (2011). Heart disease and stroke statistics–2011 update: a report from the American Heart Association. Circulation, 123(4), e18-e209.
World Health Organization (n.d.), Cardiovascular disease. (http://www.who.int/cardiovascular_diseases/en/)
Worrall-Carter, L., Ski, C., Scruth, E., Campbell, M & Page, K. (2011) Systemic review of
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