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March 13th, 2013

Women face different heart attack symptoms than men

CHICAGO, IL  "We’re Number One! We’re Number One!" is usually a chant for successes and something to be excited about. However heart attacks - still the number one killer of women - are nothing to cheer about.

Approximately half a million women die from heart attacks each year and we still are not winning the war against this terrible killer.

Katherine Gallagher, associate professor of surgery at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich. and a member of the Society for Vascular Surgery agrees, but emphasizes that there have been many public and educational campaigns about heart disease that have increased awareness from 30 percent to 54 percent during a 12-year period.

"Similar successful campaigns will be launched or expanded to other vascular diseases in women," Gallagher said.

"With regard to heart attacks, chest pain and/or discomfort are the main symptoms for heart attacks in both men and women," said Dr. Gallagher. "Women’s symptoms can be much more subtle and they may not feel the excessive chest pressure than many men experience. Women display other more common symptoms like shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain." In addition women’s symptoms can include:

• Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of the chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.

• Pressure, pain or discomfort in the lower chest, upper back or upper abdomen, neck or in one or both arms

• Becoming dizzy, lightheaded, faint, or breaking into a cold sweat

• Fatigue

• Feeling like you might have the flu

Women are a busy and sometimes brush off heart attack symptoms as being something much less serious. Many complain about just having aches and pains due to age, having the flu or even blaming chest pain on physical exercise or even acid reflux. Others think that they are too young to have a heart attack. Most of us have heard that if you take a baby aspirin (81 mg) that the pain will subside. However, no matter what, you need to call 9-1-1.

Heart disease affects women of all racial and ethnic groups, as well as women with other illnesses like diabetes. Black women are more likely to die of heart disease than white women, as are Baby Boomers and women 65 and older. After menopause, women become more at risk for cardiovascular disease. Early menopause (natural or surgical), can double a woman’s risk for developing coronary heart disease. Younger women are at risk for cardiovascular disease if they have high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol levels, or a family history of cardiovascular disease at young ages, or if they smoke.

To reduce your risk for heart attack, check out your risks with your doctor. If you smoke, quit - because you can cut your risk for a heart attack by 50 percent if you do. Walk 30 minutes a day to be heart healthy and maintain a healthy diet.

Dr. Gallagher said that work continues to help educate women avoid vascular problems. "Medical professionals are currently working on a program to educate the public and make women more aware about the symptoms and dangers of peripheral artery disease (PAD)," said Dr. Gallagher, who said that recently the American Heart Association (AHA) produced a scientific statement entitled "A Call to Action: Women and Peripheral Artery Disease."

"Women who have PAD also have significant coronary disease," added Dr. Gallagher. "In fact, most women with PAD have more risk of heart attack than the complications for PAD. A common complaint from women as they get older is difficultly with walking; so the diagnosis of PAD is sometimes missed. We need to increased awareness of PAD so that women can be appropriately treated. Proper treatment will not only limit complications from PAD, but most importantly, it will limit a woman’s risk of future cardiac events."

The AHA scientific statement provides an in-depth review of current PAD patterns and causes, its clinical signs and symptoms, potential treatments and the need for further research. "We now need to model the program we have for heart attack and disease awareness," said Dr. Gallagher, "because PAD is now in listed as high risk in the cardiovascular risk classification."

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