By now, you've probably heard about Rosie O'Donnell's health scare. The comedian and talk show host suffered a heart attack last week, but didn’t realize what was happening. After Googling the symptoms of heart attack and experiencing some of them, O'Donnell held off on going to the hospital for a day, waiting to see if they would go away on their own.
It’s common for women to ignore heart-attack symptoms or dismiss them as being due to something else, says Suzanne Steinbaum, D.O., national physician spokesperson for the American Heart Association's (AHA) Go Red For Women movement. In fact, according to a 2009 AHA study, only slightly more than half of women are likely to call 911 if experiencing symptoms—but 79 percent said that they would call 911 if someone else were having a heart attack.
“When women were asked why they chose not to call 911, the most common response was that they didn't want to bother anyone or they were afraid that they would be wrong," Steinbaum says. "But when it comes to your heart, it is better to be wrong and call than not to survive.”
While most of us are aware that crushing chest pain could mean a heart attack, women can experience more subtle symptoms such as shortness of breath, jaw pain, back pain, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, and flu-like symptoms, Steinbaum says. Other signs include uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain in the center of your chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back, along with breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or lightheadedness.
"While women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort, they’re somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting, and back or jaw pain,” Steinbaum says.
If you or someone you know has symptoms of a heart attack, call 911 right away and chew two adult aspirins, which help prevent blood clots and could prevent a heart attack. Chewing allows them to be absorbed more quickly into the body, Steinbaum says.
Rosie's story is a wake-up call for all of us to take charge of our health and listen to our bodies, Steinbaum says. After all, heart disease is the No. 1 killer of all woman: More women die of heart disease than all forms of cancer combined, yet 80 percent of the time, heart disease is preventable.
"Every single woman needs to empower herself by knowing her risk factors for heart disease," she says. "These include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, family history, stress, sedentary lifestyle, and obesity. If you have any risk factors for heart disease and are experiencing symptoms, don't wait. Call 911 immediately."
Were you shocked at the news of Rosie's heart attack? Will you be more alert to symptoms of a heart attack and take them more seriously now that you know them? What do you do to reduce your risk? Let's discuss!