As we begin American Heart Month this February, remember that heart disease is an equal opportunity killer. Of the more than 5,000 West Virginians that it claims each year, at least half are women.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death among women – more deadly than all forms of cancer combined. One out of every three women in West Virginia will die of heart disease, but you can help change those statistics.

Heart disease occurs when the arteries that supply the heart with blood slowly develop deposits of cells, fat, and cholesterol. This buildup is called plaque. If a blood clot or other particle suddenly blocks blood flow in a narrowed artery, a heart attack can occur.

Women may let heart attack symptoms go unnoticed because they often don’t experience the same “elephant on the chest” feeling that most men do. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s important to talk with your doctor.

Common heart attack symptoms for women include:
• Uncomfortable pressure, fullness, or pain in the chest
• Sharp upper body pain in the arm(s), back, neck, or jaw
• Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort
• Cold sweats (not hot flashes from menopause)
• Unfamiliar or unexplained nausea, dizziness, or light-headedness
• Unusual or unexplained fatigue

Seeking medical help within an hour of when symptoms begin can save your life. If you experience chest discomfort with one or more symptoms, call 911 immediately. The key to survival is getting help quickly. Never wait and see; the sooner an intervention can occur, the less likely the heart muscle will be damaged.

Fortunately, the risk of heart disease can be reduced. While some risk factors – such as family history and age – cannot be changed, women and men can lower their risk for heart disease with lifestyle changes. 

• Manage high blood pressure
• Manage cholesterol levels
• Stop smoking and avoid secondhand smoke
• Control diabetes (sugar)
• Exercise

If you think you may be at risk for heart disease, ask your healthcare provider to conduct a risk assessment: 855-WVU-CARE.