February is American Heart Month. I know, not the most fun or exciting topic to write or read about but this is something we all need to be aware of – especially women. So before you keep scrolling thinking ‘that could never happen to me, I am too young’, hear me out.
We’ll start with some pretty startling statistics. Did you know one person dies every 37 seconds in the United States from cardiovascular disease? About 647,000 Americans die from heart disease each year — that’s 1 in every 4 deaths (cdc.gov). Although heart disease is sometimes thought of as a man’s disease, almost as many women as men die each year of heart disease in the United States. Because most of our readers are female, I am going to focus on statistics and symptoms relating to us going forward.
Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer of women, causing 1 in 3 deaths each year. That’s approximately one woman every minute! And, according to goredforwomen.org, nearly 80 percent of cardiovascular events can be prevented.
It Runs in the Family
As the granddaughter and niece of both men and women who have had heart disease over the years, it has always been in the back of my mind to keep an eye on my health, which was one reason I made it a priority to live a healthier lifestyle and stay active. But I never put a lot of thought behind getting a baseline for my heart health until I found myself sitting in the ER with my grandfather who had had a heart attack in March of 2019, then in waiting room while my dad underwent quadruple bypass surgery in May of 2019 and then sitting in the ER with my mom who suffered a mild heart attack in November of the same year. Suddenly I felt an urgency to make sure my heart was looking healthy and to do whatever I could to offset the family history, which now ran deep through both sides of my family. The scariest part about these three family events was that their symptoms didn’t necessarily present themselves with the classic left arm and jaw pain. All three of them looked overall healthy from the outside.
As women, we need to be more mindful of symptoms that something may be awry with our hearts, and it isn’t always black and white. Here are common symptoms from goredforwomen.com you shouldn’t ignore.
- Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest. It lasts more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back.
- Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
- Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
- Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
- Subtle symptoms, such as indigestion or a case of the flu, or they may think that they strained a muscle in their chest or their upper back.
- Prolonged and excessive fatigue that is unexplained.
Deborah Ekery, M.D., a clinical cardiologist at Heart Hospital of Austin and with Austin Heart in Austin, TX says that women and their physicians may also be more likely to chalk up symptoms of a silent heart attack (flu-like symptoms, indigestion, fatigue) to anxiety and dismiss them.
Risk Factors that can be managed include high blood pressure, smoking, high cholesterol, lack of regular activity, weight and diabetes (goredforwomen.com). It is important that we take steps (no pun intended) to do what we can to prevent a cardiac event, and it is especially important to know your numbers, particularly blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar.
Taking Care of You
After three cardiac events for my family last year, my primary care provider Dr. Thor sent me to the cardiologist to get a baseline of how my heart was functioning now, so we can do our best to stay ahead of this family ‘trend’. While there, I finally brought it up that I do have heart palpitations quite often, and even an event that happened three years ago that sent my heart racing like I was sprinting a marathon for almost an hour. Although my EKG was perfect, he would like to make sure that nothing underlying is going on, so I get to wear this beautiful (ha!) event monitor for 4 weeks so it can track my heart rhythm when I do have the occasional palpitations.
At first, I was trying to hide it with shirts, but after so many other women have seen it peeking out of my shirt and asking 1) if I was ok and 2) what was on my chest, I decided to wear it proudly and perhaps bring more awareness to this topic.
I’d much rather be safe than sorry, and I encourage you to also pay attention to subtle things happening to your body. As women and mothers, we often put ourselves on the back burner (hello, it took me three years to attempt to figure out what happened that sent my heart racing at 190+ beats per minute). Get your annual check-ups, stay on top of your numbers that I mentioned above and don’t ignore any symptoms your body is trying to tell you.