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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.