For women sick at heart

While many women know that following a low-fat diet and exercising regularly reduce the risk of heart disease, many believe that attention to heart health is primarily a man's issue. But heart disease is the number one killer of women, just like it is for men. Four out of five women aged 45 to 75--and one out of three physicians--are unaware of that fact, according to a recent Gallup survey.

What's more, some 70 percent of women and 90 percent of physicians fall to recognize that the warning signs for heart disease in women often differ from the "classic" symptoms commonly experienced by men. The first warning sign (other than a heart attack) many men are likely to notice is angina--a feeling of tightness, pressure, or squeezing in the chest, directly beneath the breastbone and lasting several minutes. The pain sometimes radiates to the neck, upper abdomen, or left arm and typically occurs during stress or exertion.

One of the first warning signs in women, on the other hand, is often shortness of breath or profound fatigue that occurs when they engage in activities that they previously found easy, such as walking up a flight of stairs. Or they might suffer angina that comes and goes, with or without exertion. Bouts of nausea, heartburn, or other indigestion-like symptoms that seem unrelated to anything recently eaten may also signal heart disease.

To be sure, women with heart disease may experience "men's" warning signs and vice-versa. But women are more inclined to ignore or downplay the red flags because they don't expect to have heart disease. That's why it's so important to become familiar with the symptoms and see a physician if you're suffering from them. To help achieve that end, the American Heart Association recently joined with the American Medical Women's Association to launch the Women's Heart Health Initiative, an educational program aimed at both women and physicians.

For the Initiative's free information on heart disease in women, call 1-800-866-0400. You'll receive an excellent educational kit called Your Heart Health Record that provides, among other things, questions to ask your doctor about your own risk factors as well as information on the pros and cons of various diagnostic tests for heart disease.

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