By John Friia
The leading cause of death for women in the United States is heart disease, and many of the symptoms that signal heart attack in women are different from those experienced by males, sometimes resulting in a fatal self-misdiagnosis.
According to the American Heart Association, 477,900 women died from a heart-related conditions in 2008. The number of fatalities is nearly 12 times greater than the number of women the National Cancer Institute estimates will succumb to breast cancer this year, which is 39,510.
In the most recent summary compiled by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, heart disease was the cause of death for around 219,000 New Yorkers. Nationwide, the American Heart Association estimates that a heart attack happens every 34 seconds.
For men, the warning signs of a heart attack include a feeling of discomfort or pressure in the chest and arms, and shortness of breath. According to the Mayo Clinic, common symptoms of heart disease in women include neck, shoulder, and abdominal pain, shortness of breath, cold sweats, lightheadedness, unusual fatigue, nausea and vomiting.
One of the main reasons it is believed that women have different symptoms than men is that they tend to get blockages in different places. When a heart attack occurs it is caused by the inability for oxygen and blood to circulate through parts of the heart. Women normally have plaque buildup and blockages in smaller arteries, while males usually get blockages in larger arteries. This is why women often have less pronounced symptoms, and they can mistake the effects of a heart attack with other conditions such as a flu or just generally feeling sick.
Many women do not realize that they are having a heart attack, and sometimes wait too long to take action. In that situation, delaying medical attention can be deadly. If a woman is feeling symptoms associated with a heart attack, she should contact 911 immediately—the faster she gets to the hospital, the better chance she has to recover.
Unfortunately, for both men and women there are some heart attacks that show no symptoms of discomfort, nausea or shortness of breath; these are called “silent” heart attacks. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, older people with diabetes are more likely to suffer this type of attack.
As with other illnesses, early detection is key. You can schedule an appointment with your doctor to find out if you are at risk of developing heart disease. If you want to make immediate changes in your lifestyle to improve your health and reduce the risk of heart troubles, you can quit smoking, start eating heart-healthy foods and begin exercising if you don’t already.
Some of the best cardiovascular and heart-surgery hospitals in the country are located right here in Manhattan. Among the hospitals making the annual US News and World Report list are New York Presbyterian University Hospital, ranked at No. 4; Mount Sinai Medical Center, No. 10; and NYU Langone Medical Center, No. 14.
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