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Heart attacks: What baby boomer women can do to prevent the No. 1 cause of death in women

Nearly 500,000 women die from heart disease each year. Thousands of baby boomer women are among them.
 
While many women fear getting cancer, especially breast cancer, women are 10 times more likely to die from heart disease than breast cancer.
 
Since women may have different symptoms than men, they need information on what to do to prevent heart attacks and when to seek help.
 
Here are some warning signs that can mean a heart attack is happening, from the American Heart Association.

  • Uncomfortable pressure, fullness, squeezing, or pain in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
  • Pain that spreads to the shoulders, neck, or arms.
  • Chest discomfort with lightheadedness, fainting, sweating, nausea, or shortness of breath.

Women may have nonspecific or vague symptoms of coronary heart disease, Dr. Raed Fahmy, a Tacoma, Wash., cardiologist, told me in an interview. “It’s more difficult to pin down… Women need to pay more attention. They may have ‘silent symptoms.’” If persistent symptoms get worse, it needs to be explored, he adds.
 
Women may have these less common warning signs, according to AHA:

  • Atypical chest pain, stomach or abdominal pain.
  • Nausea or dizziness without chest pain.
  • Shortness of breath and difficulty breathing without chest pain.
  • Unexplained anxiety, weakness, or fatigue.
  • Palpitations, cold sweat, or paleness.

One recent study conducted at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences identified fatigue and sleeplessness as possible early warning signs of a heart attack in women.
 
Women usually have heart attacks an average of seven to 10 years later than men due to natural hormones that give some level of protection from heart disease before menopause. However, heart disease, when it occurs, is more often fatal in women than men.
 
National campaigns are underway to educate women and health care providers about what can be done to prevent heart disease in women. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute sponsors the Heart Truth campaign. The campaign's goal is to give women a personal and urgent wakeup call about their risk of heart disease.
 
The campaign urges women reduce their risks of heart disease by seeing their doctors regularly, getting frequent exercise, and eating a balanced diet low in saturated and trans fats with at least five daily servings of fruits and vegetables.
 
Fahmy says he is seeing an increased awareness about heart disease among women, but more outreach is needed.
 
He still sees more men than women in his practice and in the hospital. “Women tend to take care of everyone else other than themselves,” he says. Fahmy sees women sitting in his waiting room, bringing in their husbands or parents for him to see. “They forget about the symptoms they are having. They don’t want to take time from their family or their work obligations… Women need to say, “I cannot ignore symptoms’ and take action to address symptoms.”
 
For further information from AHA, call 1-888-MYHEART or visit www.americanheart.org.

Copyright 2008, Rita R. Robison, Consumer Specialist

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