by Noel Peterson, MD, FACC, FASE | Eastern Cardiology, Greenville, NC
Director of Women’s Cardiovascular Disease and Preventative Cardiology for the East Carolina Heart Institute

February is Go Red month, dedicated to raising awareness of heart disease in women.  Traditionally heart disease has always been thought of as a man’s problem. However, the incidence of cardiovascular disease is similar in both sexes.  Please take a few minutes to educate yourself regarding the signs and symptoms of heart disease in women. It may save your live or the live of someone you love.

One in four women die from heart disease, making it the #1 killer of women, regardless of race or ethnicity. It kills more women than breast, lung and colon cancer combined – yet we often fail to recognize that we are at risk for developing heart disease.  In addition, our symptoms of heart disease are much more subtle – sometimes we do not even experience chest pain! Women often chalk up symptoms to less life-threatening conditions like acid reflux, the flu, or normal aging. 

Heart attack warning signs
• Chest fullness, tightness, squeezing, discomfort, pressure or pain. Usually located in center of chest, lasts a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back. 
• Shortness of breath. This may occur with or without chest discomfort. 
•Discomfort in the neck, the jaw, the chest, shoulders, upper back and both arms
•Indigestion or belching.
•Breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness

If you think that you are having a heart attack – please do not go and lie down to see if you will feel better!!!  Call 911 – you will be seen immediately upon arrival to the emergency room (versus arriving in a personal vehicle) and life-saving treatments can be started while in-route to the hospital. Chew (don’t swallow) 325 mg of aspirin (4 baby aspirin) – this can help restore some blood flow during the time period that it takes you to get to the hospital.  

Risk Factors That Can be Managed
• Smoking
• Diabetes
• High cholesterol or low HDL “good” cholesterol
• High blood pressure
• Lack of regular activity
• Physically inactive or having a sedentary lifestyle
• Overweight or obese

Risk Factors You Can’t Control
• Age > than 65 years
• Family history of heart disease
• Race
• Previous heart attack
• History of pre-eclampsia, pregnancy induced hypertension, diabetes during pregnancy 
• Inflammatory diseases (psoriasis, inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease, etc…)
• Certain autoimmune disorders

Steps you can take:
Know Your Number
Five numbers, that all women should know to control their heart health are:

  1. Total cholesterol
  2. HDL (good) Cholesterol
  3. Blood Pressure
  4. Blood Sugar
  5. Body Mass Index (BMI)

Given the gender specific differences in the presentation, manifestation, and diagnosis of heart disease, it’s important that women learn about these differences so that they can recognize when a heart attack is occurring and get proper, life-saving care as quickly as possible.  Being proactive and taking steps to ensure your optimum health are key to preventing heart disease.  Learn your numbers and work to improve them if necessary. Make this your year to take care of yourself by increasing physical activity (10,000 steps/day), commit to exercising just 30 min a day, receive adequate sleep (7-8 hours a night), and making healthier food choices by eliminating fast food, limiting processed food and choosing a clean diet composed of whole foods and by reducing stress.