August 22, 2012 at 9:48 am , by Julie Bain
On Monday Rosie O’Donnell reported on her blog that she had a heart attack. She knew she was having symptoms that could be a heart attack. She Googled it. She even took an aspirin. But she didn’t call 911. That happens way too often, says cardiologist Holly Andersen, M.D., a member of the LHJ Medical Advisory Board. I called Dr. Andersen as soon as I heard. She’s director of education and outreach at the Ronald O. Perelman Heart Institute at New York Presbyterian Hospital and has been a key source in several LHJ stories on women and heart disease, so I knew she’d have a lot to say about this.
JB: Rosie O’Donnell is 50 years old. She looks like the average American woman. She probably thought it couldn’t happen to her and was in denial, right?
HA: Right, and that’s why we need to raise awareness. She thought she was having a heart attack and took an aspirin. That is denial and making excuses: “It can’t be me. I don’t have time for this right now.” And that’s why we have to get the message out that it can be you.
JB: But she seems to be okay.
HA: She’s very lucky to be alive. If she had a 99 percent blockage in her left anterior descending artery, the so-called widowmaker, it could have closed off and she could have had sudden death. Younger women who have a heart attack are more likely to die from it.
JB: Why do more women die from heart attacks?
HA: Right now a young woman who has a heart attack in this country will wait longer before going to the emergency room, will be less likely to have classic symptoms of a heart attack, will be less likely to have a diagnostic electrocardiogram and consequently will be less likely to be diagnosed correctly. But even if she is diagnosed correctly, she will be less likely to get all the life-saving treatments she needs. And even if the decision is made to give them to her, they will be given, on average, 13 minutes later than they’re given to a man. Those of us who treat heart attacks have a saying: Time is muscle. But even when you control for all of those variables, a woman will still be more likely to die from a heart attack than a man, and the youngest women have the greatest death discrepancy rates compared with men. We don’t know why.
JB: Are women’s heart-attack symptoms really that different from men’s?
HA: Instead of feeling like an elephant is sitting on her chest, a woman may feel pain in her back, shoulders, neck or jaw. She may feel dizzy and sweaty, have extreme fatigue or shortness of breath. However, pretty much everybody recognizes that there is something wrong. It’s not okay to just go to your doctor. If you think you’re having those symptoms, call 911 and get to the emergency room.
JB: So don’t be embarrassed or worried that the doctors might think you’re overreacting?
HA: Oh God, no. We’d much rather be taking care of indigestion in the ER than missing heart attacks. I have this patient who’s a life coach. She went into atrial fibrillation, and her heart was racing so much she felt like she was going to die. So what did she do? She went into her bedroom, put on nice clothes, put on makeup, packed everything, then told her friend and then called 911. Men don’t do that. It’s insane!
Heart disease is the biggest killer of women, and we’re losing the battle. We need to get women to understand that they’re at risk and get them to help us fight the battle. So let’s raise awareness, talk to each other, try to practice risk reduction. But if you think something’s wrong, absolutely call 911. Rosie was really lucky—but you might not be.
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Photograph copyright lenetstan, Shutterstock