Finger on the pulse
Would you know if you were having a heart attack? It may sound like a crazy question but, the fact is, you may not recognise the signs. The symptoms of heart distress for women are often very different and more subtle than for a man, making them easier to dismiss. Plus, if you did suspect something was wrong, would you know what to do, and would you do it? Many women brush aside concerns and put their own wellbeing on the backburner while they take care of everyone else. But heart attacks aren’t great at waiting until the family’s fed and the laundry’s done.
And, of course, we don’t like to be a bother. Well, it’s time to make a fuss! Each year in Australia, more women die of coronary heart disease than any other single cause, and four times as many women die of heart disease than breast cancer. According to the Heart Foundation, nearly 30 per cent of Australian women have at least one clinical risk factor for heart disease that may not be managed properly.
The fact is, heart disease is largely preventable and it’s well within our power to turn these statistics around.
What is heart disease?
It’s a term used for different conditions that affect the heart. Coronary artery disease, also known as coronary heart disease, is one of the most common, and is the leading killer of people in Australia, Canada, the US and the UK.
A narrowing of blood vessels that supply oxygen and blood to the heart, it’s usually the result of a build-up of plaque on the artery walls. It can cause chest pain (angina), arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), shortness of breath and heart attack. Cardiovascular disease is related to coronary heart disease, but involves blood disorders, too. Most heart disease can be prevented, and it’s possible to live a normal, healthy life if you have it, but vigilance is key.
Don’t miss a beat
Being aware of your risk factors, working to minimise them, recognising the signs of heart distress and knowing what to do in an emergency are all crucial. Unlike a broken bone or headache, you can’t see or feel many indicators for heart disease. Conditions such as high blood pressure and clogged arteries are silent and stealthy – all the more reason to take them seriously.
High blood pressure
Simply put, if you have consistently high blood pressure, your heart needs to work much harder to do its job. High blood pressure can lead to heart attack and stroke. When combined with being overweight, smoking or having diabetes, it can be an even greater problem.
Fix it: There are no outward signs of high blood pressure, so it needs to be measured often. Your doctor should do this every time you visit the surgery and you can also buy a monitor to use at home. If your blood pressure is high, you can try bringing it under control by losing weight, exercising, reducing the amount of sodium in your diet and, if you smoke, by quitting. Your doctor may also prescribe medication – it’s important to take it as directed and follow up frequently to check on your progress.
A fatty substance, which is produced by your body and found in your blood, cholesterol is also present in certain foods. If you have too much of this substance circulating in your blood, it can cause fatty deposits to build up on your artery walls, which reduces blood flow to the heart.
Fix it: Your cholesterol is measured by a blood test. If your LDL cholesterol – or bad cholesterol, as it’s known – is high, or you have elevated Triglycerides (another type of fat found in the blood), you can help reduce them by losing weight, exercising and limiting your intake of foods that are high in saturated fats, especially fast foods, cakes, muffins and chips. Red meat, seafood, dairy and eggs should be eaten in moderation as well. For many people, high cholesterol is hereditary and medication may be necessary to bring it under control.
Being overweight or obese
Carrying excess kilos is one of the greatest risks to heart health. It often goes hand in hand with other health problems such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes.
Fix it: We all know it’s easier said than done, so instead of embarking on another punishing fad diet or unrealistic exercise regimen, aim to eat healthy foods, watch your portion sizes and increase your daily activity. Little steps can result in big achievements.
Lack of activity
This is a biggie, as our hearts really do need us to get up and move around as much as possible to stay in good shape.
Fix it: Generally, the main obstacle to exercising is your brain. Change that ‘can’t do’ narrative in your head and you’ll find the benefits of exercise are instantly rewarding – psychologically (it’s hard to beat that feel-good, stress-reducing factor) as well as physically. Whatever your size or situation, you can be more active. Even turning up the radio and dancing around the kitchen counts as exercise, as does physical intimacy with that special someone in your life!
There may be about half a dozen people alive who don’t know the many dire risks associated with smoking. They were last seen living under a rock in deepest Mongolia. The rest of us don’t have that excuse.
Fix it It may be one of the hardest things you’ll ever do, yet giving up smoking will probably be one of the most rewarding. Try enlisting the help of family, friends or colleagues who have successfully stopped. Also visit quitnow.gov.au or call the Quitline on 13 78 48 for information and support.
Certain risks are beyond our control, namely family history and getting older. You can’t change either, but arming yourself with the facts and having a game plan will definitely help you gain the upper hand.
The signs of impending heart attack you need to know
You know your body best, so you know when something’s not right. Although many of the following symptoms may indicate a condition other than an impending heart attack, get help immediately if you begin to experience one or more of the below that cannot be attributed to something else.
This sensation is usually described by women as a heavy, dull pressure or discomfort in the middle of the chest, rather than the clutch-at-your-heart acute type of pain depicted in movies. But while chest pain is the symptom most often associated with a heart attack, its absence doesn’t mean there isn’t cause for concern.
Upper body pain
Discomfort or sharp pain in the jaw, neck, back or arm on your left side, which seems to radiate from the chest is a common indicator.
Shortness of breath
Breathlessness when resting or at the slightest exertion could spell danger.
If you don’t typically suffer from anxiety or panic, together with an accompanying racing heartbeat, you should see your doctor as soon as you can. Women experiencing a heart attack often say they feel overcome by a sense of impending doom. Obviously, wondering if you could be having a heart attack can exacerbate anxiety, but it may also happen because your heart isn’t receiving sufficient oxygen.
A sudden drop in blood pressure can cause dizziness and clammy skin.
During a heart attack, nausea, vomiting and indigestion are more likely to be experienced by women than men. If these symptoms can’t be attributed to pregnancy, a tummy bug or the meal you just ate, and they are accompanied by chest discomfort or any other of these signs, seek help.
In the lead-up to a heart attack, many women experience aching muscles and crippling tiredness that is unrelated to anything else.
The heart of the matter
• Time is of the essence in the event of a heart attack. The sooner you get help, the greater your chances of recovery. There will also be less chance of any damage being caused to your heart.
• If you start to experience any symptoms, you should take one regular-strength aspirin or four baby aspirin. Chew them, rather than swallowing, to increase absorption into your system. Aspirin thins your blood and increases blood flow through the arteries to your heart. It can buy you time and could save your life. n Don’t get behind the wheel or ask anyone else to drive you to the emergency room, if you can avoid it. An ambulance crew can deliver life-saving treatment on the spot, call ahead to the hospital and get you there more safely than you could under the circumstances.
• Never let the fear of making a fool of yourself stop you from acting on your gut instincts. If it turns out to be a false alarm, you still win, and you’ll more than likely come away with valuable information about your health.
What happens at hospital?
Your vital signs (blood pressure, heart rate, pulse) will be taken, you’ll be hooked up to an ECG machine and blood will be drawn to check for cardiac enzymes that will reveal whether you have had, or are having, a heart attack. Depending on the outcome of those tests, doctors may order other procedures, including a nuclear stress test or heart catheterisation to check for blockages. Scary, yes, but you’ll be in the best place for assessment, treatment and recovery