Heart disease and stroke kill one woman about every 80 seconds — more than all other cancers combined.
“Widowmaker” heart attacks make widowers, too.
While men get most of the attention when it comes to cardiovascular disease, it’s women who die from heart attacks more frequently. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in both men and women, and being male is a risk factor because men suffer them more frequently. But men are also more likely to survive: 1 in 4 men dies of a heart attack each year, compared to 1 in 3 women.
Some female patients have worse outcomes because they take longer to seek medical attention. But a new study published this month also found that doctors are more likely to disregard heart attack symptoms in women. Nearly 30% of female patients who suffered a heart attack sought medical attention beforehand, but more than half (53%) said their doctors did not think their symptoms were heart-related, blaming them instead on anxiety or stress.
“You have to advocate for yourself and ask flat-out what your risk for heart disease is, and take this equally as seriously as when you go get a mammogram,” Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, a cardiologist and spokesperson for the American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women movement, told Moneyish. “You need to check your cholesterol, your blood pressure and your blood sugars, and find out your family history.”
So while “widowmaker” heart attacks — when the left anterior descending (LAD) artery becomes almost completely blocked, often resulting in death — have been in the news since director Kevin Smith survived one this week, women should use these incidents as a wakeup call to assess their own risk.
“We’re all obsessed with taking care of everybody else, but we don’t put ourselves as a priority,” Beverly Buchanan, 60, who caught a widowmaker blockage just in time five years ago, told Moneyish.
The South Carolina nurse woke up one night in 2012, when she was 56, feeling like an elephant was sitting on her chest. “The thought running through my mind was, ‘You’re gonna die,’” said Buchanan, who’d been suffering symptoms like almost passing out for months, but put off seeing her doctor until she was about to go to abroad. They found her LAD was 99% blocked. She underwent open-heart bypass surgery and cardiac rehab, but it took two years to recover.
“I should have known better,” she said. “Now I see my cardiologist more, and now I listen to what he says instead of trying to treat it myself.”
Actress Rosie O’Donnell had a similar realization after surviving a widowmaker heart attack in 2012. She wrote in a poem that she also ignored the symptoms: “I became nauseous. My skin was clammy. I was very very hot. I threw up … I thought: Naaaa. (So) I took some Bayer aspirin.”
Women often experience more subtle heart attack signs than men, which is why so many go undiagnosed until it’s too late.
“In men it’s that crushing, heavy chest pain, but with women it can be shortness of breath, back pain, nausea, vomiting, trouble breathing, or it could even be fatigue and flu-like symptoms,” explained Dr. Steinbaum.
If these symptoms occur suddenly and don’t go away; if they’re occurring during exercise – but especially if you’re completely at rest – you should seek immediate medical attention. If you feel too sick to take yourself to the ER, call 911 and chew an aspirin while waiting for EMTs to arrive.
“If people get the hospital rapidly, and we can treat these with balloons and stents, the patient doesn’t [necessarily] die,” Dr. Ajay Kirtane, director of the cardiac catheterization laboratories at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia hospital, told Moneyish. “It used to be that if you had this diagnosis, that was the end. That is not the case anymore … but time is muscle, meaning the quicker we can get in there, the more of the heart muscle that we can save.”
The best way to protect your heart is to know your numbers — your blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and BMI — learn your family’s heart attack history and taking preventative steps. Risk factors for heart attack include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, being sedentary, being overweight or obese, and having diabetes, which can all be controlled or treated by regular exercise, eating healthy and taking medication.
“Some people are motivated only after they have an event like a heart attack or a heart procedure, but perhaps that could have been prevented if they had started at an earlier age,” Dr. Kirtane said. “And some people have events despite being really healthy, and they often get frustrated — but honestly, if they didn’t do all of the good things they were doing beforehand, maybe this would have happened to them even earlier.”
Or, they might have survived it.
“Women need to understand that it’s not going to be cancers that kill you; more than likely than not, it’s going to be something in the cardiovascular disease family,” Buchanan added. “And we don’t see it coming because we’re not thinking like that.”
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