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Family Safety & Health is a quarterly publication for workers and their families. Each issue contains articles and tips – written for people of all ages – about safety and wellness at home, in the community and on the road.

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The following article appears in the Summer 2020 issue of Family Safety & Health and represents the type of information your employees and their families can learn about each quarter to help them stay safe while off the job.

Women Don't Always Experience 'Classic' Heart Attack Symptoms

By Barry Bottino

Tasya Lacy watched her diet and, as a fitness instructor, exercised regularly.

“I thought I was doing everything to control it,” said Lacy, who lives in Columbus, OH.

In 2016, however, at age 50, she had a heart attack.

“I had what’s called the ‘widowmaker’ – 99% blockage,” Lacy said. “I couldn’t understand it.”

During a busy week of teaching classes and preparing for a fitness event, she felt fatigued. She chalked it up to her schedule. And her nagging shoulder pain? She figured it was a pulled muscle.

On the day of the event, Lacy felt “a jolt” in her left shoulder. “I thought, ‘I must have really damaged something.’ ”

Later that evening, Lacy felt nauseated and didn’t have much of an appetite. It wasn’t until she went to a hospital that she fully understood what was happening.

A person has a heart attack every 40 seconds in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And although heart disease is the No. 1 killer for both sexes, women often experience very different heart attack symptoms than men.

“Women typically express very atypical symptoms,” said Margo B. Minissian, a cardiology nurse practitioner at the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center at the Cedars-Sinai Smidt Heart Institute in Los Angeles. “So when a woman is feeling anything that is different for her above the waist, we should always think of the heart first.”

Additionally, only 56% of women recognize that heart disease is their leading killer, according to the CDC. Nearly 300,000 women died of heart attacks in 2017.

What to Watch For

Although men often experience pain and pressure during a heart attack – which they commonly describe as feeling like an elephant is sitting on their chest – women’s symptoms can be confused with other ailments.

“Women more often will present with neck pain, back pain, jaw pain, nausea and vomiting,” said Puja Parikh, an interventional cardiologist and co-director of the Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement Program at the Stony Brook (NY) Heart Institute. “Men tend to have [sweating] with chest pain.”

According to Mayo Clinic, women are more likely to have symptoms unrelated to chest pain, such as indigestion, abdominal discomfort, unusual fatigue, dizziness or lightheadedness, and shortness of breath. Experiencing multiple symptoms simultaneously is especially concerning.

“When we see clustering of these symptoms, we really want women to go and get checked out,” Minissian said.

Parikh added that because women feel such unique symptoms, they often delay seeking care.

“I consider myself blessed,” said Lacy, who shares her story as a “Real Woman” volunteer for the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign – an initiative designed to increase heart health awareness and foster lifestyle changes among women worldwide.“I was in total denial (of the symptoms).”

Women who have heart attacks, Parikh noted, generally are older and have higher rates of diabetes, hyper- tension and chronic kidney disease.

Minissian added that women are “wired just a little bit differently” because they bear children.

“There are about 200 different reasons why a woman could be having [symptoms],” she said. “We just want to make sure we’re ruling out the scary things first.”

Know Your Numbers

For Lacy, fitness and eating a balanced diet had always been part of her lifestyle. She realizes now that she lacked knowledge about her paternal family’s health history and didn’t know her numbers.

Those numbers are the key heart health measurements used to help determine one’s heart attack risk and can be obtained during a visit to your health care provider. They are:

  • Total cholesterol
  • High-density lipoproteins, also known as “good” cholesterol
  • Blood pressure
  • Blood sugar
  • Body mass index

“You should be able to rattle [your numbers] off the top of your head,” Minissian said.

Women can help limit their risk by not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, and eating a diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish.

Lacy’s experience has allowed her to counsel friends, family members and students in her classes on heart health. Her best advice to other women?

“Don’t wait,” she said. “We don’t need to die from this.”

Note: Although the information and recommendations contained in this article have been compiled from sources believed to be reliable, the National Safety Council makes no guarantee as to, and assumes no responsibility for, the correctness, sufficiency or completeness of such information or recommendations. Other or additional safety measures may be required under particular circumstances. This material may not be reproduced in any fashion without the National Safety Council’s permission.