9OYS Health Watch: Women's Heart Health

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9OYS Health Watch: Women's Heart Health

CREATED Feb 27, 2012

Reporter:  Jessica Chapin

TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - A tingling left arm and severe chest pain are well-known signs of a heart attack for men.  But according to medical specialists, many women don't know the signs of a heart attack even when they are having one.  The symptoms are very different, but the result can be just as deadly.

Twelve years ago, Mary Anne Fay went to the doctor for an earache that turned out to be something completely different.

"I had pain in my ear, I felt nausea, and I felt hot.  I felt uncomfortable, I just knew there was something wrong but I didn't know what it was," she said, "actually I was sitting there with a book in my lap reading heart attacks and I did not have any of those symptoms.  I did not have an elephant on the chest, I didn't have the symptoms that you think you're having a heart attack.  Mine were totally different and then they went away."

It turns out, Fay was having a heart attack. 

"I had a 90 percent blockage so I was very very fortunate that eventually it was understood that I was having a problem," she said.

That was the diagnosis from the University of Arizona Sarver Heart Center, where Dr. Gordon Ewy got to the heart of the issue.

"I had high blood pressure, I had high cholesterol, my grandmother had died of a heart attack," said Fay, "technically I was very healthy, but I had a little bit of everything."

On the outside, Fay was fine, but on the inside her clogged artery was threatening her life.  Her symptoms weren't unusual, and the fact that she didn't know wasn't unusual either.  The difference in symptoms wasn't recognized on a national scale until recent years.  Now, heart disease is recognized as the leading cause of death in women.

"Twenty years ago these things were unknown," said Dr. Ewy,  "People would come in and they'd have chest pain or women would come in with chest pain, they'd do a coronary angiogram and it would be normal and they'd say 'well sweetie it's all in your head.'"

Now, Ewy says they test differently and take different information from the results.  Just because a woman's test comes back negative doesn't mean she's not at risk.

Ewy says women are also more prone to stress-induced heart attacks, because their heart muscles can contract tightly and rapidly. 

He says to watch out for signs including:

- shortness of breath
- fatigue
- pain in the back, shoulders or abdomen.

There are also several things women can do to keep track of their health to prevent heart disease and heart attack, including knowing:

- family history
- blood pressure
- cholesterol levels

The University of Arizona and the Sarver Heart Center continue to research the new ways to prevent and treat heart disease.  Three recent projects are focusing specifically on gender and race differences when it comes to treatment.