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Heart Healthy For The Holidays:
How To Reduce Your Risk Of A Heart Attack

On Sept. 21, 1998 the fastest woman sprinter of all time, Florence Griffith Joyner, previously in excellent health and taking no medication, died suddenly at age 38 of a heart attack.†† Americans were in shock-not only over our grief at the premature loss of this outstanding athlete, vibrant woman, and young mother.† We simply have a hard time shaking our false beliefs that women (especially young women) don't die of heart attacks and yet this is the cause of death for one in three women.† Dr. Donnica discusses how common heart attacks really are, what the risks for heart attack are, the symptoms that should have you call your doctor right away, and important prevention tips.† In addition, she will highlight some of the differences between heart attacks in men and women.

Heart Disease, Heart Attack- What's the Difference?

Think of the heart as a pump that pushes blood through a series of pipes (the blood vessels) in order to provide oxygen to various tissues, including the heart muscle itself.† The arteries that supply blood to the heart itself are called the coronary arteries.† If the coronary arteries become clogged over time (e.g. with plaques from atherosclerosis), this is called coronary artery disease or simply "heart disease".† If the arteries become suddenly clogged or blocked (e.g. from a sudden blot clot or thrombus), cutting off all or most oxygen supply to a part of the heart muscle, a heart attack may result.

Heart disease is the number one killer of adult women and men in the United States.† It is a chronic, age-dependent process with numerous risk factors.† It will kill one in two adult Americans. Clinical evidence of coronary heart disease is present in one in five American women; one in three women over age 65 have this.† It is caused primarily by atherosclerosis, or plaques building up on the walls of blood vessels causing them to narrow and become blocked.† Heart disease is a major risk factor for heart attack. Nearly 20,000 women under age 65 die of coronary heart disease each year; about one third of them are under age 55.

Every 20 seconds, someone in the US has a heart attack.† Fortunately, due to tremendous medical advances in the past decade, heart attacks are decreasingly fatal.† Nonetheless, it accounts for one-third of all deaths in women and is the leading cause of death in women over age 50. Within six years after a recognized heart attack: one in three women will have another heart attack, one in six will develop angina, one in eight will have a stroke, one in three will be disabled with cardiac failure, and one in fourteen will experience sudden cardiac death. Heart attack (medically called "myocardial infarction" or "MI") is often the acute end-point of coronary heart disease; it is caused by blocked blood flow to the heart muscle (by a blood clot or plaque) which causes irreversible damage-and death--to the affected part of the heart muscle.† A heart attack may be caused by a blood clot in a coronary artery or a coronary artery, which temporarily contracts or goes into spasm.†† This causes the artery to narrow and blood flow to part of the heart muscle to decrease or stop.† What causes a spasm is unclear. But it can occur in normal-appearing blood vessels as well as vessels partly blocked by atherosclerosis. Heart attacks may be brought on by stress, cold, or exertion.† The pain of a heart attack is similar to that of angina,† although it is not relieved by rest or prescribed medication.

Angina is chest pain of cardiac origin caused by poor circulation and decreased oxygen to the heart muscle.† It is moderate to severe, but reversible and temporary pain (can last up to five minutes), pressure, or a sense of numbness or heaviness behind the breastbone or across the chest.† It is a common symptom of coronary heart disease, caused by atherosclerotic plaques partially blocking the arteries that supply the heart. Angina is more prevalent in women than in men, and more prevalent in African American then Hispanic or white women.

Sadly, numerous surveys in the US and Canada show that most women do not yet recognize heart disease as an important health problem for them.† This misperception must be overcome if preventive and early treatment strategies are to be implemented successfully.

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 A recent study from the University of Minnesota found that when women became mothers, their risk for heart disease actually did increase, but it was attributed to the fact that mothers did fewer leisure-time physical activities, thus making them more sedentary. 


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