The problem might start with a sleepless night...
Then it morphs into terrible indigestion, shortness of breath, and a pain in your back that won't quit. It persists over the next few days, so you go to the doctor.
He diagnoses you with an anxiety attack and sends you home with some anti-anxiety pills.
The next day, you die of a heart attack.
It's not an unrealistic possibility for a woman in the U.S., where thousands of women with heart disease are misdiagnosed every year.
Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death among women in the U.S. – killing one in three women. That's 10 times the number who die from breast cancer.
Part of the problem is that many folks can't recognize the symptoms of a heart attack.
Women don't always experience the same symptoms as men, like pressure on the chest or pain radiating down the left arm. And it's not all that difficult to mistake a heart attack for something else... even for the person experiencing the heart attack.
The most common symptoms – fatigue, lightheadedness, sweating, anxiety, feeling of impending doom, sensation of an abnormal heartbeat, and nausea – also fit the flu or stress or indigestion. Or a doctor will assume it's anxiety. And because women often have higher rates of anxiety, they may receive the wrong diagnosis.
A study in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes demonstrated that women with anxiety are 75% more likely to have heart disease. But bias persists in the medical community that women who experience these symptoms – and have few risk factors for heart disease – most likely have an anxiety disorder.
It's a cyclical problem. Researchers from Johns Hopkins studied the link between the two diseases and think that anxiety is a contributing factor to heart disease. The constant stress from anxiety makes your heart race and your blood pressure rise, both of which damage your heart over time.
So if you have anxiety, it can lead to heart disease. Likewise, if you have heart disease, your symptoms might look like an anxiety disorder.
If you suspect you're having a heart attack, get help immediately. The American Heart Association has a good resource for knowing what to look for and what you should do if you or a loved one are experiencing a heart attack. And even more important, learn how to prevent a heart attack...
Stop a Heart Attack Before It Hits
Prevention is crucial for your heart's health regardless of your gender. Here are some of my top recommendations to start protecting your heart today:
1) Eat plenty of berries and olive oil. As I've written before, olive oil and berries are both great sources of antioxidants. These molecules fight oxidation damage in our cells, keeping inflammation in check. As inflammation is a contributor to heart disease, eating plenty of antioxidants will help keep your heart healthy.
2) Exercise. Taking a few walks during the day is a great way to help protect your heart. According to a Korean study, taking a brisk 40-minute walk every day was enough to lower the top number of blood pressure by five points and the lower number by two points (130/80 to 125/78).
I take daily walks outside when the weather is warm. If I don't want to walk outside, I'll hop on the treadmill with a few magazines to read.
3) Floss. Bacteria buildup in your mouth leads to inflammation in your gums. Left unchecked, that bacteria and inflammation can spread to your bloodstream and wreak havoc on your cardiovascular system. Flossing helps break down the sticky buildup where your toothbrush can't reach.
4) Manage your stress. Stress takes a heavy toll on your heart as well as your psychiatric well-being. Meditation, yoga, and plenty of good-quality sleep are all necessary to help rid your body of stress.
Take steps today to manage heart disease. And if you're a woman who experiences any of the unusual symptoms we mentioned, don't wait to get them checked. Early treatment for a heart attack could be the difference between life and death.
What We're Reading...
- An Atlantic article focusing on the bias doctors still have on women's heart attacks.
- Something different: The true story of the con man who sold the Eiffel Tower.