Here’s some good news about heart disease, the number one killer of Americans: the rate of heart attacks and strokes is dropping and has been for decades. That means you are less likely to develop these problems than in the past.
But there’s bad news, too: heart attacks are striking more young people, particularly younger women. New research shows that hospital visits for heart attacks by people aged 35 to 54 years increased from 27% in 1995 to 32% in 2014. Yet women had a 10% rise in admissions—from 21% to 31%—while younger men had just a 3% rise.
The study found that young women admitted for heart attacks often had high blood pressure, diabetes, and other conditions that are known heart risk factors. But they were less likely than men to get prescriptions for medications that are recommended to prevent heart problems and manage risks. These include cholesterol- and blood pressure-lowering drugs and blood thinners. And the women were more likely to be black, suggesting that black women are very hard hit by heart disease.
The study didn’t look at the women’s weight, but that might help to explain these numbers. More women are overweight or obese, which can increase the rates of heart disease risk factors like high cholesterol, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
But the study also shows that health providers don’t always recognize that a younger woman is at risk of heart attack and/or stroke. That might be why younger women with problems like high blood pressure aren’t getting medications that might prevent a heart attack.
Another fact is that women often have different heart attack symptoms than men, so their symptoms can be overlooked in the Emergency Room(ER). While more men have the classic signs like chest pain or pain in the left arm or shoulder, women often have nausea, fatigue, back pain, sweating, or dizziness. The study found that young women admitted for heart attacks were also less likely than young men to have procedures that open up blocked arteries.
But women can also be their own worst enemies. They often ignore their symptoms, and as the caretaker for the entire family, put others’ health ahead of their own. Another recent study showed that women are more likely to call an ambulance if their husband, father, or brother is having a heart attack than if they are having one.
What can women of any age do to avoid heart attacks? The first step is prevention. Watch your weight (weighing daily helps prevent weight gain), try to get at least some exercise—just walking helps—and eat a heart-healthy diet. That includes lots of fruits and vegetables, lean protein (fish and chicken), whole grains, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats like olive oil.
Next, do your best to control or manage heart attack and stroke risk factors like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood sugar levels, and smoking. If you don’t know your blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol numbers, have them checked. If you have any of these conditions, ask your doctor whether you might benefit from medication.
And ask about special blood and urine tests for signs of inflammation that may give you information about hidden heart disease risk.
If you have symptoms that could be a heart attack, take them seriously. Call 911 right away and then speak up about your concerns with paramedics and in the ER. Literally tell them you think you are having a heart attack. Men usually do.
These steps can not only improve your life—they might just save it.