As women become busier and busier, we sometimes forego our own health in favor of doing more for others and chasing every opportunity available to us. We make sure our kids eat healthy and get enough exercise, but we skip our own meals to make sure we attend every activity that comes our way – socially, personally, and professionally. But at some point, we need to slow down and heed the calling to take care of ourselves, to beat the disheartening statistics when it comes to our heart health.
Heart disease and stroke cause one in three deaths among women each year, killing approximately one woman every 80 seconds. Heart disease is the number one killer of women, taking more lives than all forms of cancer combined. Both men and women have heart attacks, but more women who have heart attacks actually die from them. The good news is we have the power to change those numbers, because 80 percent of cardiac and stroke events may be preventable with education and action.
Even healthy, active women are not exempt from the deadly disease. Take one healthy 44-year-old PE teacher at the top of her game. She was a fit and trim triathlete, who considered herself so healthy that she would joke to her husband, “You’re going to be stuck with me until I’m 115 years old!” One day, she woke up with severe back pain, and figuring it was a muscle spasm from training too hard for a race, she headed off to work. Then, while playing tennis during gym class with a student, the pain spread to her chest. She dismissed the thought she was having a heart attack and got in her car to drive home. Suddenly, as she was talking to her husband on speaker phone, she felt nauseated, started sweating, and felt so lightheaded she had to pull off the highway. Finally, she told him to dial 911.
By the time she got to the hospital, and under the care of a cardiologist who took her EKG, rushed her to the catheterization lab and inserted a stent, she was told that if she hadn’t been in such good shape, she would have died on the tennis courts – one of her main arteries was 100 percent blocked. Her annual checkups had never revealed high cholesterol or high blood pressure, and she had no family history of heart disease.
This woman is one of many, many stories that defy the age-old myth that having a heart attack is represented by the feeling that an elephant is sitting on your chest. For many women, the symptoms often come without the chest pressure, according to Dr. Nieca Goldberg, medical director for the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at NYU’s Langone Medical Center, and an American Heart Association volunteer. She says that instead, women may experience shortness of breath, pressure or pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen, dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting, upper back pressure, or extreme fatigue. These are some of the same symptoms the triathlete had that did not cause her concern until it was almost too late. Even when signs are subtle (one woman thought she just had the flu), the consequences can be deadly, especially if help is not sought immediately.
There are steps women can take, according to the American Heart Association’s “Go Red for Women” 2017 Fact Sheet. Go Red for Women is a movement that starts with ladies like you, asking you to lead by example and make the time to “Know Your Numbers.” It’s knowledge that could save your life.
The five important numbers all women should know are: total cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, and body mass index (BMI). Knowing these numbers can help you and your health care professional determine your risk factors for developing cardiovascular diseases.
It’s time for all women to learn the most critical numbers in their life – their life depends on it!
Abella Carroll is a freelance writer
Dr. Goldberg’s top tips:
• See your healthcare provider to learn your personal risk for heart disease.
• Quit smoking. Did you know that just one year after quitting, you can cut your risk of coronary heart disease by 50 percent?
• Exercise. Even walking 30 minutes a day can lower your risk for heart attack and stroke.
• Modify your diet. Learn about smart substitutions, healthy snacking, and prep methods.
• Remember, heart disease is preventable! It’s up to you to listen to your body, follow your instincts when you feel something is not right, and don’t let anyone talk you out of getting a second opinion, if necessary.