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Heart disease, No. 1 killer, can sneak up on women

Associated Press | 7/6/2011, 12:27 a.m.

Then there are the questions of how best to tell which women are at high risk. Nearly two-thirds of women who die suddenly of heart disease report no previous symptoms, for example, compared with half of men. As for heart attacks, chest pain is the most common symptom but women are more likely than men to experience other symptoms such as shortness of breath, nausea and pain in the back or jaw.

Legislation pending in Congress would require better study of gender differences, and would expand a government program that currently screens poor women in 20 states for high cholesterol and other heart risks, offering smoking cessation and nutrition education to help lower those risks. Wenger's groups, which receive some funding from drug companies, and the heart association support the bill.

One young patient says women need to know more about heart disease - and to get pushy about any symptoms.

Essence Harris of New Orleans was just 30 and seemingly healthy when she started getting short of breath and feeling a flutter in her chest during her daily workouts. Her primary care doctor thought it was panic attacks. A cardiologist found no obvious risk either -- her cholesterol and blood pressure were normal - but ordered a stress test that signaled her heart fears were right. A further exam found severe blockages in two arteries that required stents to prop open.

Now 37, Harris says doctors’ best guess is that a stressful lifestyle - a single mother, a full-time job, a part-time personal trainer, and studying for an advanced degree all at the same time - left her vulnerable even without obvious risk factors. Had she not been so fit, they said, her heart might not have held out as long before symptoms appeared. She’s learned to be more laid-back, along with a healthier diet and keeping up that exercise.

“Listen to your body,” she advises other women. “Nobody knows you better than you.”

Associated Press