Heart Disease: Women’s Biggest Foe

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States, but many women believe heart disease is a man’s disease. Pam Peitz, RN, M.S., program manager for cardiac rehabilitation and heart failure at Meritus Medical Center says women should understand their risk for developing heart disease and know the potential signs of heart trouble.

Are you at risk for heart disease?

Being a diabetic, African American, over the age of 65 or having a family history of heart disease puts you at a higher risk for developing the condition. A sedentary lifestyle, weight gain, smoking, eating high-fat/sugary foods, high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar and high cholesterol also increases your chances of heart disease. To help you understand your risk, use the American Heart Association’s tool

Heart attack symptoms in women

Unlike the “elephant stepping on my chest” feeling that men may experience during a heart attack, women’s symptoms can be varied and subtle.

Women experiencing a heart attack may feel:

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Pain in the arms, upper back, neck or jaw
  • Stomach pain
  • Shortness of breath, nausea or lightheadedness
  • Sweating
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea

“Women’s intuition can be very strong,” says Pam. “Studies show that some women even feel an impending sense of doom before a heart attack.” If you experience any of these symptoms, call 911 immediately. “Don’t drive yourself or have someone take you to the emergency room,” says Pam.

Time is muscle

A heart attack occurs when plaque ruptures in a coronary artery and blocks blood flow to the heart. The longer the heart is deprived of oxygen-rich blood, the more damage to the heart muscle. Women often acknowledge their heart attack symptoms too late when damage is already done—and as a result have poorer outcomes.

At Meritus Medical Center’s emergency department, severe heart attack patients or STEMIs, are fast-tracked to the cardiac catheterization lab at the first sign of a heart attack as indicated on an EKG. Patients with normal EKGs are evaluated in an observation center for 12-24 hours.

Recovering from a heart attack

Medical procedures to open blocked arteries significantly improve a patient’s health, but research shows that people who complete a cardiac rehab program are more likely to take their medications, avoid being readmitted to the hospital and live longer.

Meritus Medical Center’s cardiac rehabilitation program helps patients recover from a cardiac event, strengthen their heart muscle and modify their lifestyle to prevent more heart trouble. As program manager for cardiac rehabilitation, Pam sees too few women participate in the program. “Women tend to take care of everyone but themselves.”

The nationally accredited program focuses on exercise, nutrition, stress management and medication management. Medicare and many insurance plans cover or partially cover cardiac rehabilitation and financial assistance is available.

As caregivers, breadwinners and multitaskers, women devote little time to themselves, but prevention is key to heart health.