The Heart of the Matter

Clearly you're no couch potato, though you're likely to know women who are, so share with them the health benefits of physical fitness. Increased physical activity may improve both LDL and HDL levels, aid weight control (the more overweight you are, the greater your risk for heart disease), decrease the risk of blood clotting (also a risk for heart disease) and improve blood pressure.

But it doesn't completely erase your risk, as DeMarco found out. Doctors determined that she had a blood vessel spasm causing a blood clot to form and block oxygen to her heart.

"Exercise is not a get-out-of-jail free card," warns Judelson. Your blood vessels could be 50 percent blocked and you wouldn't have symptoms during exercise. "We all have some degree of disease or pre-disease. You can feel fine now and still have high blood pressure or increased LDL. Exercise doesn't stop some cardiovascular risk factors from progressing, but it might buy time off for good behavior."

Don't smoke
Fortunately, overall smoking rates have decreased considerably since the 1970s, but sadly teen-age girls are increasingly more likely to smoke. Tobacco use accounts for a large number of heart attacks in young women. "The risk is huge," cautions Morris "and it starts from the day you start smoking."

Warning signs

Know the warning signs, and get treatment immediately, advises Morris. "It's better to get to the hospital and to be told that it's indigestion" than to risk a heart attack.

Knowing the signs of a heart attack is critical, but it's also important to know that 25 percent of heart attacks have atypical symptoms. Below are the most common signs of heart attack as well as atypical signs to watch for.

Typical signs

  • Chest discomfort described as pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain that can radiate up to the jaw or down the left arm
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Cold sweat, light-headedness
Atypical signs
  • Pain in the upper back, abdomen, shoulder, neck and jaw
  • Shortness of breath in the absence of chest pain
  • Flu-like symptoms (nausea with vomiting)
  • Unusual fatigue or weakness
  • Fainting
Worrisome stats
  • One in three women dies of heart disease.
  • One in nine women over age 45 and one in three women over 65 have coronary heart disease.
  • Women are almost twice as likely as men to die after bypass surgery.
  • 38 percent of women die within one year of their first heart attack.
  • Women comprise only 25 percent of participants in heart-related research studies.
  • 64 percent of women who die of heart disease have no prior symptoms.
Source: National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease; National Center on Health Statistics; National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute; American Heart Association


Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D., is a registered dietitian and diabetes educator for Hampton Roads Center for Clinical Research in Norfolk, Va.
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