Don’t Dismiss Heart Symptoms: Trust your Body and Intuition

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Three years ago, on her 76th birthday, Mary was not feeling well. She told her daughter, Roxsen, her symptoms. Roxsen, aware of the signs of a heart attack in a woman, immediately drove her mother to the emergency room. After an evaluation and testing, Mary was released and was advised by the ER doctors to get a GI screening. Even after Roxsen disagreed, the medical staff determined Mary was not having a heart attack and sent the pair back home.

Two weeks later, Mary, in excruciating pain, phoned her daughter at work. After Roxsen called 911, Mary was rushed to the hospital, suffering a heart attack. Her heart had rare damage solely from being left untreated earlier. Mary died a few days later.

The Stats
A woman dies every minute from heart-related problems, a morbidity level that’s five times higher than breast cancer. Even with these statistics, women and the people around them will often chalk up the heart attack symptoms they are experiencing to less life-threatening conditions such as acid reflux, the flu or normal aging.

Doctors are people, and people make mistakes, but research suggests women are more likely than men to be on the receiving end of those medical miscalculations. Compared to men, women are 50 percent more likely to receive the wrong diagnosis following a heart attack, according to a study from University of Leeds in the UK. To add to the dilemma for women, past guidelines to treat heart disease have often come from studies geared toward men. Statistics are improving yearly, but in 2020, only about 38 percent of clinical trial subjects were women.

But what was once considered a man’s disease is finally being connected to women on a more regular basis. Doctors now know that post-menopausal women are at high risk for heart attacks, and more recently, that heart disease is appearing in much younger women during pregnancy and postpartum.

The Signs
We’ve all watched the movie scenes where a man holds his chest, screams and falls to the ground when he’s having a heart attack. But a heart attack victim can easily be a woman, and the scene may not be very dramatic, like Mary’s scenario. By now, many of us can signal the symptoms, but we generally leave it up to medical workers to advise us how to proceed. Getting help immediately can be life or death, even if the signs are subtle, such as those noted in the sidebar.

The Battle
With growing numbers of female doctors and women in medical research, it’s likely more emphasis will be placed on women when it comes to diagnosis and treatments. Experts also recommend that older women have a child or other loved one act as a health advocate, since older adults may have trouble remembering symptoms and health issues. Caregivers should also make a point be involved in their loved one’s medical plans or insurance. In Mary’s case, she might have not gotten the care she needed (or deserved) from that initial emergency room visit, simply because of a recent change in her insurance plan.

More recent research says there is a definite connection between a woman’s stress levels and heart disease. Females with depression are 48 percent more likely than a male to suffer heart problems. Experts recommend women work on reducing stress, especially lingering high levels of tension and anxiety over the last three years of the pandemic.

The Good News
Ninety percent of heart disease cases can be prevented with a healthier lifestyle, more exercise, better diet, no smoking and regular appointments with our doctor. With certain changes, we can put more control in our own hands. By being proactive about our own health, we can better receive the care we need in a timely and respectful manner.

Three years later, Roxsen’s experience with her mom’s heart attack and the way it was handled is still raw and painful. Regardless of the challenges we face, it’s important to learn, focus and, perhaps more importantly, be persistent. When we know our own bodies and trust our gut, our heart may be in better hands.

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American Heart Association advises women to be aware of these symptoms.
• Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest. It lasts more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back.
• Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
• Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
• Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
• As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women may experience other symptoms that are typically less associated with heart attack, such as shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting and back or jaw pain.