Heart Disease In Women

Different signs for different gender

Heart disease is the number one killer of women over the age of 55 according to this report from the Public Health Agency of Canada. Yet many women may not even recognize the signs that they are having, or have had, a heart attack.  They, and perhaps even their doctors, may attribute the signs of heart disease to life situations, other illnesses, or drug side-effects. Therefore, women may wait until it’s too late to prevent complications, or worse, death.  Here’s what to watch for:

  • Unusual fatigue that gets worse with activity
  • Shortness of breath; difficulty breathing
  • Heartburn that is not relieved by antacids
  • Sudden nausea or vomiting that is not relieved by antacids
  • Anxiety
  • Tightening and pain in the chest that may extend to the jaws, neck or shoulders
  • General feelings of weakness
  • Paleness
  • Sweating

Any of these symptoms alone may not be cause for concern, but if they are occurring in combination, medical attention should be sought quickly.  Women, and their medical practitioners, should also be aware that these symptoms may appear and disappear, and may occur up to a month before the actual “attack.”  That’s what happened to Jacqueline Laraquette (not her real name).

“I’d been feeling this heaviness on my chest, almost like a bad heartburn, off and on for more than two weeks last August, and it seemed to disappear, but then was  back one day, and kept getting worse, so I thought we should stop at the hospital on the way to our cottage,” Laraquette says.  “Early tests showed that I’d had a minor heart attack, but then, more extensive tests at another hospital a few days later showed it had been a major heart attack, and that there’d been some damage as much as one month earlier. I was shocked to find all of this out—after what I thought might be a minor problem.”

Looking back, Laraquette said she did experience many of the other symptoms she’s since learned were related to heart attacks, but put them down as anxiety related to the trauma of both her father and brother dying earlier in the summer. “They’d died of heart attacks, so I guess it was in my mind that this could be heart-related, which is why I decided to go to the hospital.  I’d forgotten that there were some women in our family who had heart problems—I just thought it was a problem on the men’s side—and these symptoms were very different than what I’d seen with my brother and my dad.”

Laraquette was lucky she followed her instincts to get the chest heaviness checked out. According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation in Ontario, one in three Canadians will die before their time from either heart disease or strokes, and they echo the findings of the Public Health Agency that heart attacks kill more women than all other diseases combined.  The 2012 campaign “Make Death Wait” is in full swing and you can get more information on how to get involved here. The campaign is not just directed at the general public. The more that health professionals know about heart disease, particularly as it relates to women, the better it will be for their patients.

“I consider myself lucky that even though I had a major heart attack, I survived to tell the tale, and to warn my family and friends, especially the women in my life, to get checked, and to not ignore any of those symptoms. They should talk to their doctors too, and make sure that they are doing all they can to prevent what I went through.”

Other Helpful links:

Risk Assessment Questionnaire (from Heart and Stroke Canada website):

Healthy Weight Action Plan (linked from Risk Assessment questionnaire website):

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