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Women and heart disease: Know the warning signs

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Picture a heart attack victim. Who do you see? Chances are, you imagined a man, maybe around age 60. But did you know that cardiovascular disease kills more women than the next four most common causes of death combined?

“Heart attacks and strokes are not the be-all, end-all. But what can we do to prevent them?” says Megan Sutton, Cardiology Nurse Practitioner at Weiss.

According to the American Heart Association, women could prevent 80 percent of “cardiac events” (including heart attacks) by making healthy choices in diet and exercise, as well as abstaining from cigarettes.

Women also have to pay attention to signs of heart attack. Their symptoms differ from men’s symptoms, and even among women, symptoms differ immensely. Often, women mistakenly assume that they are under stress or slept wrong. Instead of calling 911, they wait for the pressure or pain to pass.

However, more time equals more damage to your heart muscle, according to Sutton. Signs to remember include uncomfortable pressure—“like an elephant sitting on your chest,” says Sutton—squeezing or pain in the center of the chest lasting more than a few minutes; pain in the arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach; shortness of breath without chest discomfort; extreme sweat; nausea; and light headedness.

“Heart attacks aren’t always deadly as they were years ago. We have a lot of techniques in our toolbox to help out, but timing is of the essence. Call your doctor or 911 as soon as you can,” Sutton says.

To prevent heart disease, Sutton calls not smoking, diet and exercise “the most important things.” Choose nutrient-rich foods, high in vitamins, minerals and fiber, and lower in calories.

Make vegetables, fruit and unrefined whole grains a part of your daily diet. The American Heart Association also recommends eating fish at least twice a week. The omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon, trout and herring may reduce risk of coronary artery disease. You can also eat slowly, take smaller portions and say no to second helpings.

Keep active, too. If you get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise (including walking) a week, you reduce your risk of heart disease. Without physical activity, your body loses strength and ability to function.

To make physical activity a regular part of your life, schedule time daily by either walking during your lunch hour or in the evening. You can also choose farther parking spots and take the stairs instead of the elevator.

Overall, remember: “You need to pay attention to your body,” says Sutton.

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