The Deadly Disease Most Women Ignore

Rosie O’Donnell says it’s a “miracle” that she survived, after ignoring heart-attack warning signs because she didn’t recognize her danger. When the former talk-show host, 50, developed soreness and aching in her chest and arms after helping “an enormous woman” out of a car, she chalked it up to muscle strain.

When the ache persisted—and she became nauseated with clammy skin—O’Donnell was worried enough to Google women’s heart attack symptoms. “I had many of them, but really? –I thought – naaa,” she wrote in her blog. Like 50 percent of women who have heart attacks, she didn’t call 911. Instead, she took an aspirin, then waited until the next day to get help for what turned out to be a 99 percent blockage in her LAD coronary artery, a type of heart attack called the “widow-maker.”

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The Myth that Puts Women’s Lives at Risk

Often thought of as a man’s problem, heart attacks kill 267,000 American women annually: more than all forms of cancer combined. Every year since 1994, heart attacks have killed more US women than men. Yet many women still think that breast cancer (which kills 40,800 women a year) is their biggest health threat.

Most women—and even doctors—don’t know the gender-specific symptoms of a heart attack, says cardiologist Noel Bairey Merz, MD, director of the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center at the Cedars Sinai Heart Institute. “Fewer than half of women have the classic Hollywood heart attack with crushing chest pain—often described as feeling like an elephant is sitting on you—that’s typical in men.”

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Women’s Heart Attack Symptoms Often Misdiagnosed

Instead, women typically have less dramatic heart attack symptoms that may not include any chest pain. As a result, women are misdiagnosed at a far higher rate than men—and are more likely to die after a heart attack than men are, according to a new study of 1.4 million heart attack patients.

“Relatively young women like Rosie O’Donnell have the highest rate of heart-attack fatalities, because their symptoms are frequently misdiagnosed,” both by women themselves and by emergency physicians, says Dr. Merz.

One shocking study reported that up to 50 percent of the time, women’s heart attack symptoms go unrecognized by emergency and medical professionals. And nearly two-thirds of heart attack deaths in women occur in women with no history of chest pain, reports womenheart.org.

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Young Women Also At Risk

If you think you’re too young to have a heart attack, here’s what you need to know: Of the 435,000 American women who have heart attacks annually, 83.000 are under age 65 and 35,000 are under age 55. Under age 50, women’s heart attacks are twice as likely to be fatal as in men.

To protect yourself, get checked for such common risk factors as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high blood sugar. Alert your doctor if you have a family history of heart disease, particularly if relatives were affected at an early age. A healthy diet, regular exercise, and keeping your weight down are the best ways to trim heart attack risk.

And if you smoke, here’s yet another reason to kick the habit: Women who smoke risk having a heart attack 19 years earlier than non-smoking women. A study that tracked nearly 120,000 women ages 30 to 55 for 12 years found that those who smoked were four times more likely to suffer a heart attack or die from heart disease than the nonsmokers.

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Seven Warning Signs Women Should Never Ignore

Because most heart attack research has focused on men, adds Dr. Merz, “symptoms that are extremely common in women are called ‘atypical,’ when they’re only atypical in men. Lack of awareness of women’s warning signs—and not getting health care soon enough—are major contributors to why heart attacks kill more women than men every year.”

When a heart attack strikes, getting medical help within the first hour reduces the risk of dying by 50 percent. If you have any of these warning signs, call 911.

  • Shortness of breath. During a heart attack, or in some cases, days or even weeks preceding the attack, many women report gasping as if they’d just run a marathon or having trouble talking, one study reported.
  • Non-chest pain. Instead of an explosive pain in the chest, women may develop less severe pain in the upper back, shoulders, neck, jaw, or arm. “Get immediate medical help if you have any unusual symptom above the waist, even if it’s not in your chest,” advises Dr. Merz.
  • Unusual fatigue. In one study of female heart attack survivors, 71 percent experienced unusual fatigue in the days and weeks before the attack—often so extreme that the women were too fatigued to make their bed, lift a laptop, or walk to the mailbox.
  • Heavy sweating. Women may be suddenly drenched with sweat for no apparent reason. Frequently, women feel both hot and chilled, with clammy skin, during a heart attack, as happened to O’Donnell.
  • Nausea or dizziness. During an attack, women frequently vomit or feel like they’re going to faint. The nausea can also feel like heartburn, says Dr. Merz.
  • Anxiety. Many women experience a feeling of impending doom or intense fear before or during a heart attack. Heeding that inner warning can be lifesaving. 

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