American Heart Association graphic
Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of both men and women in the U.S. While both men and women can experience chest pressure that many say feels like an elephant sitting on the chest, women often have symptoms that they don’t connect to heart disease, such as extreme fatigue, irregular back discomfort, pressure or pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen, dizziness, lightheadedness, jaw pain, shortness of breath and nausea, according to the American Heart Association.
“And by the time they get to the physician or the hospital, they are actually sicker than their male counterparts are,” Dr. Melissa Walton-Shirley, a Glasgow cardiologist, told West.
Family history, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes are all risk factors for heart disease. In addition certain lifestyle factors can put people at risk, such as an unhealthy diet, high in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium; physical inactivity; obesity; too much alcohol (more than one drink a day for women, more than two for men); and tobacco use, West reports.
Missy Norris, a grandmother and longtime employee of Brown-Forman Corp. in Louisville, had a family history of heart disease, but didn’t think she was at risk because she was physically active, a nonsmoker and of normal weight, West reports.
“My dad had three heart attacks, a stroke, and also had open heart surgery. My mother had a heart attack and open heart surgery–both in their 60s for the open heart surgery,” she said.
But Norris had symptoms of heart disease that she didn’t recognize: fatigue, occasional pain in her heart and chest, and pain in her upper arms, which she said she “never associated that with (the) heart. Not ever.” These symptoms got worse over time, but she didn’t seek medical help until she started having trouble breathing in extreme temperatures.
“There was so much going on in my life with work. … I self-diagnosed: It was just, I’m tired. It will get better tomorrow, I just need more rest,” she told West.
Norris’s doctor immediately did an EKG, which led to a procedure that determined she had four blockages. “We fixed three of them that day, and we saved the other one because he didn’t think I could handle it all at once,” she told West. “He told me … I was probably about a week away from having a massive heart attack, and I probably wouldn’t have survived,”
Nikki McCubbins, a Louisville mother of three, who told West that her “mother’s brothers and sisters generally don’t get past the age of about 62 before they have a fatal heart attack and pass away,” found out at a postpartum checkup that she had high blood pressure.
“I had no idea I had high blood pressure, no idea,” she said. She now takes medication,exercises, maintains a healthy diet and works to reduce her stress to decrease her blood pressure.
Both Norris and McCubbins have participated in the American Heart Association’s Louisville Go Red for Women Luncheon, held to support the fight against heart disease in women, and they want to help others learn about heart disease and women.
“I would tell women to go to the doctor, get your numbers. If your numbers are high, make some changes,” McCubbins told West. “And the changes are simple, you know. Get a little exercise in. Try to minimize stress. Just try to live a healthy life as much as possible.”
Norris’s advice: “When your body’s telling you something, take care of it, because I didn’t. And I had no idea that I was that close to disaster.”
The 2015 Lexington Red For Women Luncheon will be held Friday, Dec. 4, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Lexington Center’s Heritage Hall, 400 W. Vine St. Tickets are $100 each or $1,000 for a table of 10.
The Go Red for Women effort focuses on three areas: heightening awareness of the issue, creating a passionate call-to-action and generating funds to support education and research.