News Blog

What Every Woman Needs to Know About Heart Disease and How to Recognize Signs of Trouble

To celebrate February as American Heart Month, the News Blog is highlighting some of the latest heart-centric news and stories from all parts of Penn Medicine.

February is all about hearts…from Valentine’s Day to American Heart Month. However, while one is a reference to a romantic and commercial holiday, the other is a more serious matter. One that women in particular need to pay close attention to: the prevention, causes, symptoms and treatment of heart disease.

Heart disease remains the number one cause of death in the US for both men and women. Heart disease, in all its forms, is responsible for over 400,000 deaths a year among women – more than all forms of cancer combined. And although new research on the importance of heart-healthy diets, exercise and quitting smoking have decreased heart disease rates among men in the past 30 years, the rate for women hasn’t budged, according to a new report from the National Insitute of Nursing.

Nazanin Moghbeli, MDHelping to battle such depressing statistics and improve the heart health of women in the greater Philadelphia region is Nazanin Moghbeli, MD, MPH, FACC, the director of the Women’s Cardiovascular Center at Pennsylvania Hospital. In a series of posts this month, Dr. Moghbeli will address the most important questions and issues to help women become more  heart smart.

Q:  What exactly is “heart” or “cardiovascular disease?”

Heart or cardiovascular disease is a blanket term that actually covers different diseases of the heart and vascular systems of the body. The types of heart disease are:

  • Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the most common form of heart disease. CAD is caused when the coronary arteries that supply the heart with oxygen and nutrients become narrowed or clogged. This can cause chest pain (angina), heart attack (myocardial infarction) and even sudden death.
  • Congestive heart failure occurs when the heart muscle is weakened and is longer able to pump blood effectively. The most common symptoms include shortness of breath, fatigue or swelling of the legs. Congestive heart failure is often the result of damage to the heart muscle caused by a heart attack.
  • Cardiac arrhythmia, or abnormal heart beat, can be health-threatening if it keeps the heart from pumping efficiently. If this is the case, then an arrhythmia can contribute to congestive heart failure or even cause sudden cardiac death.
  • Stroke is caused when blood vessels bringing blood to the brain become narrowed or clogged. Peripheral vascular disease (PVD) is very similar but occurs in the arteries of the legs.
  • Valvular disease referes to damaged or malfunctioning valves of the heart, and an aneurysm, is the abnormal widening, or bulging of an artery due to a weakened arterial wall from severely clogged and hardened arteries.

Q. What is a heart attack?

Coronary arteries bring blood and oxygen to the heart. If blood flow to part of the heart is blocked long enough and the heart is starved of oxygen, heart cells dies and that part of the heart muscle is damaged or dies, resulting in a heart attack – more formally known as myocardial infarction.

Q. How prevalent is heart disease in women in the US?

According to the American Heart Association, more than one in three female adults has some form of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Beginning in 1984, the number of CVD deaths for females began to exceeded those for males. Research shows that women who have heart attacks are more likely to die within a year of the event compared to men, and a whopping 64 percent of women who died of sudden cardiac events had no previous symptoms.

Q. What are the symptoms of a heart attack?

Recognizing the symptoms of heart attack in women may not always be as clear-cut as it is for men. The most prominent symptoms which are sure signs of trouble that women should keep an eye out for are:

  • Pressure, tightness, fullness and discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or it comes and goes in waves.
  • Pain or pressure that spreads to the shoulders, between the shoulder blades, neck, upper back, jaw, or arms
  • Jaw or throat pain
  • Crushing chest pain
  • Shortness of breath and difficulty breathing
  • Nausea and/or dizziness
  • Cold sweat, paleness
  • Overwhelming fatigue or weakness
  • Abdominal pain

Women often mistakenly think only severe chest pain is a symptom of a heart attack and delay seeking medical care. I’ve heard many patients who feel that doctors either didn’t take them or their symptoms seriously. Be persistent. You know your body and when you aren’t feeling well. Seek the medical attention you need and deserve.

Q. What should you do if you think you’re having a heart attack?

Is it heart burn? A pulled muscle? Fatigue? Just what is that pain and what does it mean? It’s important for women to be aware of the signs and symptoms of a heart attack, but even more important – don’t wait for the pain to pass. Seek help. Unfortunately though, woman can experience the full gamut of symptoms or only one or two. The only way to know for sure if you’ve had a heart attack is to be examined by a physician and undergo testing, such as an electrocardiogram (ECG).

If you think you’re having heart attack seek help immediately and call 911. Don’t take a chance and try driving yourself to a hospital since you run the risk of losing consciousness. Tell the 911 operator and tell the paramedics that you are experiencing heart attack symptoms. Don’t be afraid to be firm. A 2009 Penn Medicine study  showed that there definite gender disparities in pre-hospital care and that women with chest pain are less likely than men to receive proper treatment from paramedics. Once at the hospital, make sure you get an ECG and/or blood enzyme test to see if you are having a heart attack.

Keep checking this blog in future weeks for more topics to be tackled by Dr. Moghbeli including news about heart disease across the age spectrum, from pregnancy to menopause.

You Might Also Be Interested In...

About this Blog

This blog is written and produced by Penn Medicine’s Department of Communications. Subscribe to our mailing list to receive an e-mail notification when new content goes live!

Views expressed are those of the author or other attributed individual and do not necessarily represent the official opinion of the related Department(s), University of Pennsylvania Health System (Penn Medicine), or the University of Pennsylvania, unless explicitly stated with the authority to do so.

Health information is provided for educational purposes and should not be used as a source of personal medical advice.

Blog Archives


Author Archives

Share This Page: