Women should heed signs of heart disease

  • Unusual shortness of breath can be a symptom of heart disease.

    Unusual shortness of breath can be a symptom of heart disease. Stock Photo

By Teri Dreher, RN
Updated 2/21/2021 1:04 PM

February is heart health month. It's a good time for all of us to take stock of what we can do to keep our hearts healthy, and to move women to the forefront of that discussion.

Women left out of studies


You might be surprised to hear that cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death of women worldwide. Despite this, researchers still leave women behind in studies of the heart.

A report in the February 2020 edition of Circulation looked at the gender makeup of cardiovascular trials conducted between 2010 to 2017. It found that women accounted for just 38.2% of trial participants. We need to change that.

Everything from hormones to the smaller size of a woman's heart compared to a man's can affect appropriate treatment. We already know that women experience symptoms of heart trouble differently than men, leading to some overlooking symptoms that could signal the need for prompt care.

Know the symptoms

So what can we do about this? The first step is to educate yourself.

While we often imagine a heart attack the way we've seen it portrayed on television -- someone clutching their chest in pain and falling to the ground -- the symptoms in women are often less dramatic, making it easier to miss them.

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The Mayo Clinic points out that one reason symptoms differ in women is that they often have blockages not just in their heart but also in the smaller arteries leading to it. Symptoms of heart trouble in women may include:

• Pain in the neck, jaw, should, upper back or one or both arms.

• Shortness of breath.

• Nausea, vomiting, abdominal discomfort or indigestion.

• Sweating.

• Lightheadedness or dizziness.

• Unusual fatigue.

Of course, just because you have one of these symptoms doesn't mean you should be alarmed. Sometimes, indigestion is just indigestion. They key is to make sure you get regular checkups and alert your doctor to symptoms you have, no matter how insignificant you may think they are. And don't forget to listen to your intuition. If something feels off, share that with your health care provider.

Take care of your heart

Eating heart healthy is one of the easiest ways to keep your heart in good order. That means taking steps like limiting salt and saturated fats, avoiding processed grains and red meats, and opting for healthier choices like leafy green vegetables, fish loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, lean meats and plant proteins, nuts and seeds, beans and whole grains.


Next, make sure to include exercise into your daily routine. Need some motivation? Experts at Johns Hopkins point out in the article "5 Heart Facts That May Surprise You" that inactivity is actually a higher risk factor for heart attack than smoking. The good news is that that's easy to fix. A daily brisk 30-minute walk will do the trick. If you're stuck at home, go online to try out an exercise video or just put on some favorite music and do a little dancing. If you're working from home, remember to schedule time to get up and walk around, or invest in a standing desk to keep you from sitting for hours on end.

Finally, get regular checkups, and advocate for yourself and your loved ones. If you're experiencing concerning symptoms, don't let a doctor dismiss them. Speak up! You know your body best.

At a time when many are having trouble making ends meet, you might be tempted to put off those regular checkups. I get it. Health care is expensive. But it's always cheaper in the long run to visit a health care provider at the earliest signs of a problem rather than wait until it becomes an emergency.

So during heart health month -- and all year round -- take steps to keep your heart healthy. Remember, heart disease is preventable. Good food, a little exercise and regular checkups are all it takes to keep your heart beating strong for many years to come.

• Teri Dreher is a board-certified patient advocate. A critical care nurse for more than 30 years, she recently founded Seniors Alone Guardianship & Advocacy Services (SeniorsAlone.org), a not-for-profit organization that serves the area's senior orphans. She also is the founder of NShore Patient Advocates, www.northshorern.com. Contact her at (312) 788-2640.

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