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January 30, 2017

What Women Need to Know About Heart Disease

by John Hastings

When Carrie Fisher passed away unexpectedly in December, the culprit was the number one killer of women. Not cancer -- heart disease. Although many people don’t realize it, heart disease actually strikes as many women as it does men. And it’s even more likely to be deadly for women.

One reason? In women, symptoms of a heart attack may not fit the expected script -- which makes them easier to overlook, says Sonia Henry, MD, a cardiologist at North Shore University Hospital and the Katz Institute for Women’s Health.

“Some women don’t get the classic pressure in the chest and shortness of breath,” Dr. Henry says. “Their symptoms can be subtle and easy to ignore.”

February 3 is National Wear Red Day, devoted to raising awareness of the risk that heart disease poses to women. What better time to review some of the silent signs that can signal trouble?

Fatigue

This isn’t the type of tiredness that comes from one too many late nights. Women who suffer a heart attack often report having felt a deep fatigue that persisted for days, says Dr. Henry. Exhaustion may feel unusually extreme and come on suddenly.

Heartburn

Here’s what a heart attack often looks like on bad TV: A man grimaces in sudden pain and clutches his chest. Sudden, sharp chest pain is one possible sign of a heart attack -- but that symptom is less common in women. Instead, for many women, a heart attack feels like severe, persistent heartburn.

Back pain

Leading up to a heart attack, a woman may feel a sharp pain in the back because of stress to the heart muscle. Pain in the neck or jaw is also a more common sign of trouble for women.

Nausea

Women can experience symptoms like nausea and vomiting in the days or weeks prior to a heart attack, says Dr. Henry. Often, they mistakenly chalk it up to flu.

Although these symptoms can seem maddeningly vague, Dr. Henry stresses that you should listen to your body when you have unusual symptoms. “Trust your gut,” she says. “If you think something is really wrong, it probably is. Don’t ignore it. Call 911 or get to an emergency room right away.”