Heart of glass

My cousin had a major heart attack Feb. 21. She’s 46 – and, fortunately, it looks like she’ll be OK. But it was a very close call.

For such a strong and reliable muscle that we take for granted, sometimes a heart can be as fragile as glass

Quick check: How many of you read the first sentence and assumed my cousin was a man? And how many of you were shocked at the second sentence? You can admit it; it is shocking.

And very scary.

I wrote extensively about women’s heart health in my past life as a health and fitness writer, but since we’re in the dwindling days of Women’s Heart Health month and this is very much on my mind, writing about it again seems most appropriate.

Too many people still don’t know that women’s heart attack symptoms differ from men’s.

Fortunately my uncle recognized what was going on when he happened to stop by my cousin’s house and called for a medical helicopter. They barely made it to the Arkansas Heart Hospital in time.

She coded, but quick defibrillator action brought her around, and emergency surgery left her with a stent and very sore cracked ribs, but she’s tough and will be fine.

Toughness is part of the problem with women’s heart health. We tend to do so much and carry such busy, heavy loads that exceptional tiredness can be the norm. For my cousin, that was the only symptom in the days leading up to the blow-out.

She’s high energy and being tired is unusual for her.

Since she has smoked for years, any shortness of breath might have been mistaken for that. (DO NOT SMOKE. Do not smoke. Do not smoke. Please.)

Day of, she says her symptoms were these:

  • Feeling “boiling hot” inside (easy to mistake for a hot flash, huh?)
  • Intense pain across both shoulders (easy to mistake for strain/overuse)
  • And eventually, nausea

Would you recognize that as a heart attack? If so, congratulations for your astuteness.If not, please read this list of common women’s symptoms from WebMD:

  • shortness of breath (57.9%)
  • weakness (54.8%)
  • unusual fatigue (42.9%)

Other women’s symptoms (also from WebMD):

  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Lower chest discomfort
  • Upper abdominal pressure or discomfort that may feel like indigestion
  • Back pain

But, according to WebMD, women also often do have the “classic” or “men’s” symptoms:

  • Pressure, fullness or a squeezing pain in the center of the chest, which may spread to the neck, shoulder or jaw;
  • Chest discomfort with lightheadedness, fainting, sweating, nausea or shortness of breath.

Please don’t assume if you’re not clutching your left arm, as so often portrayed in movies and on television, that it’s not your heart.

I’m not trying to scare you. But I do want you to know. Too many women die from heart attacks and too many people don’t know that.

So one more set of facts from womenshearthealth.org:

  • 435,000 American women have heart attacks annually; 83,000 are under age 65; 35,000 are under 55. The average: 70.4.
  • 42 percent of women who have heart attacks die within 1 year, compared to 24 percent of men.
  • Under age 50, women’s heart attacks are twice as likely as men’s to be fatal.
  • 267,000 women die each year from heart attacks, which kill six times as many women as breast cancer. Another 31, 837 women die each year of congestive heart failure, representing 62.6 percent of all heart failure deaths.
  • 71 percent of women experience early warning signs of heart attack with sudden onset of extreme weakness that feels like the flu – often with no chest pain at all.
  • Nearly two-thirds of the deaths from heart attacks in women occur among those who have no history of chest pain.
  • Women who smoke risk having a heart attack 19 years earlier than non-smoking women.

And for a final kicker to the ticker, according to Women’s Heart Health:

  • Marital stress worsens the prognosis in women with heart disease.

Scary stuff. I’d highly advise you to visit the Women’s Heart Health website. And get your minimum 30 minutes of exercise a day. Take care of yourself, please.

Again, I’m not trying to scare you – just want you to be aware and alert.  This is from my heart to yours, because I want you to have a heart of gold, not a heart of glass, even though I adore Debbie Harry.

Get well, little cousin. Love you.

Now I’m off to do my morning cardio. Hope you’ll do the same.

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