Heart Health: What All Women Should Know

Women's Health

Medically reviewed by Dr. C.H. Weaver M.D. 2/2020

For many of us, heart health is an after-thought—featured somewhere in the list of overall wellness concerns we consider throughout our busy days, but hardly playing a starring role. We may consider the issue as we choose olive oil over butter or lace up our running shoes to get some cardio, but it often gets pushed to the end of the list again without any real research or action.

But the reality is that we need to put heart health in the spotlight. Kim Sloan, senior vice president, North Texas, American Heart Association, says that many women aren’t aware that “heart disease is still the number one killer of women, resulting in more deaths than all forms of cancer combined.” In fact, Sloan says, “an estimated 43 million women in the US are affected by heart disease, and ninety percent of women have one or more risk factors for developing heart disease.” And, lest we be lulled into a dangerous comfort zone by the idea that heart health is largely the concern of older men, Sloan points out that “heart disease kills more women than men, and one woman in three dies of heart disease.”

Yikes. So what should women know about this under-recognized health issue to ensure that their hearts get the attention they deserve? Here, the American Heart Association® provides valuable information about risk factors and prevention to ensure women are aware of this critical women’s health issue.

Signs of a Heart Attack or Stroke


More women die of cardiovascular disease than from the next four causes of death combined, including all forms of cancer. But 80 percent of cardiac events in women could be prevented if women made the right choices for their hearts involving diet, exercise, and abstinence from smoking. Make it your mission to learn all you can about heart attacks and stroke—don’t become a statistic.

Heart Attack

A heart attack occurs when the blood flow to a part of the heart is blocked, usually by a blood clot. If this clot cuts off the blood flow completely, the part of the heart muscle supplied by that artery begins to die.

Signs of a Heart Attack

1.Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain in the center of your chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.

2.Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach.

3.Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.

4.Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or lightheadedness.

5.As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain. If you have any of these signs, don’t wait more than five minutes before calling for help. Call 9-1-1. Get to a hospital right away.


Stroke is the number four cause of death in America. It’s also a major cause of severe, long-term disability. Stroke and transient ischemic attack (TIA) happen when a blood vessel feeding the brain gets clogged or bursts.

Signs of Stroke and TIAs

1.Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body.

2.Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding.

3.Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes.

4.Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination.

5.Sudden severe headache with no known cause.

Also, check the time so you’ll know when the first symptoms appeared. It’s very important to take immediate action. Research funded by the American Heart Association has shown that if given within three hours of the start of symptoms, a clot-busting drug can reduce long-term disability for the most common type of stroke.

The signs of a TIA are like a stroke, but usually last only a few minutes. If you have any of these signs, don’t wait more than five minutes before calling for help.

Call 9-1-1 to get help fast if you have any of these, but remember that not all of these warning signs occur in every stroke.

Heart Attack Survivor Story - Amy Nartatez Heinl, 42

Amy Nartatez Heinl doesn’t run every day because it’s good for her heart, she runs because she can, and because it symbolizes overcoming a major obstacle in her life. Only three months after having emergency surgery to repair a torn artery, she competed in a 5K.

 “The goal was to run the entire race and finish,” Amy says. “I knew if I could do that, I could show people that you can fully recover and go on to live a healthy life with heart disease. My sister was with me and competed in the half marathon that day. She said what I did was more inspiring and courageous than any race she has ever completed.”

 A busy executive and mother of three young boys, Amy spent several years on the move. But one day, during an early-morning workout doing light weights, she started to experience chest pain and shortness of breath. Unable to shake it, she collapsed and her friend called 9-1-1.

  Upon arriving at the hospital, Amy was rushed into surgery to repair an artery that had torn 2 ½ inches. Later, doctors determined she’d experienced a Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD), a rare condition that strikes younger women and can result in sudden death.

  “I really couldn’t believe this happened to me, and my heart was the last thing on my mind,” Amy says. “I thought of myself as a healthy person, and I was exercising when it happened. I truly believed I had pulled a muscle.”

 Following a successful surgery, Amy began the long journey toward recovery. Though she was accustomed to a busy and active lifestyle, the cardiac rehab process began with a few simple steps on a treadmill — which was not an easy adjustment. But before she knew it, she was competing in a race.

 During her recovery period, Amy took stock of her family’s lifestyle and made changes to ensure her kids would grow up as healthy as possible.

  “I still have that occasional glass of wine or slice of pizza,” she says. “But I’ve really prioritized health in our family.”

  Perhaps the biggest change since her diagnosis is one that many women find the most difficult: taking more time for herself each day.

  “I was always on the go with work. My kids and I think I had to go through this struggle to wake up and realize that things in my life needed to change,” she says. “I hope my story will lead other people to focus on taking care of themselves and know the risk factors for heart disease so that something like this does not happen to them.”

  Given the high fatality rate from her condition, she feels especially lucky that she is still here and can share her experience with others.

  “I tell my story because I am actually alive to tell it,” she says. “I want to show other women that heart disease can happen to anyone, but you can survive it. I’m proof of that.”

Reprinted with permission from the American Heart Association.

Go Red For Women

Go Red For Women® is the American Heart Association’s national movement to end heart disease in women. The movement advocates for more research and swifter action for women’s heart health. Go Red for Women was created by women for women—“because women’s health is non-negotiable; because women have the power to save our lives; and because the best force for women is women.” The movement is nationally sponsored by Macy’s and Merck&Co., Inc., with additional support from our cause supporters. For more information, please visit GoRedForWomen.org, or call (888) MY-HEART (694-3278).


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