The Woodward News

April 28, 2013

Heart attacks often deadly for women

Rowynn Ricks
Woodward News

Woodward, Okla. — Heart attacks are not just a man's disease.

In fact, women have a higher mortality rate from heart disease than men do, according to American Heart Association statistics shared by Cardiologist Dr. Jeff Sparling during a Healthy Woman event at Woodward Regional Hospital earlier this week.

Sparling said one of the reasons heart disease is so deadly for women is because it is difficult to diagnose in women.

He said these diagnosis difficulties arise from 2 areas: 1) the misconception that women don't have heart attacks and 2) that heart disease often presents differently with different symptoms in women.


Sparling said he believes that the reason there is such a misconception about heart disease in women is a lack of education.

"My belief is that it's all one of education, we have not done a good job until the 2000s of educating about cardiovascular disease in women," he said.

That's why he is such a big supporter of the American Heart Association's (AHA) "Go Red for Women" campaign, which seeks to increase awareness of heart disease in women like the Susan G. Komen Foundation increased awareness of breast cancer.

And like the pink ribbon for breast cancer, the Go Red for Women campaign has a red dress symbol that it uses to help promote awareness of cardiovascular health.

Attendees of the recent Healthy Woman event were even presented with red dress lapel pins that they can wear to join in the awareness efforts.

The sobering truth, Sparling said is that cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of women and "claims the life of one woman every minute."


But what makes heart disease so deadly in women?

Often is because women may not recognize when they're having a heart attack.

While many may think of chest pain as the main symptom of a heart attack, Sparling said that isn't true for many women.

"The symptom that's primarily experienced by women having a heart attack is shortness of breath," he said.

One woman in the audience at the recent Healthy Woman event spoke up and shared her own experience with heart disease.

"I had a heart attack and I had no chest pain or any pain like that," she said.  "I was throwing up, had diarrhea and the cold sweats.  I just thought I had the flu."

"And those are 3 things that you would never think were associated with heart problems," Sparling said.

According to the AHA website, nausea and flu-like symptoms are just one kind of hard to recognize heart attack symptoms that often present in women.

The website quotes Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, director of The Heart and Vascular Institute at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, as saying other surprising symptoms include back pain and pain in the jaw or neck.

"Sometimes the heart isn't able to give a good signal and, instead, the pain can radiate to the neck, jaw and back," Steinbaum said.

The AHA recommends that women who are experiencing any irregular pains in those areas or who have shortness of breath or suspicious flu-like symptoms go get checked out for a possible heart attack.


Since cardiovascular disease is so hard to diagnose, it helps to be aware of your risk factors and ways to reduce those risks that you can.

However there are some risk factors that can't be changed, Sparling said.

"If you're a woman and you make it to 80, you cannot change your gender or age; you're more than likely going to have heart disease at that point," he said.

Also if you've already had a heart attack, you can't take that back and it puts you at greater risk for additional cardiovascular disease, including congestive heart failure, he said.

Family history is another big risk area that can't be controlled.

"As a cardiologist your family history is very important to me, probably more important than anything else," Sparling said. "(Because) for both women and men who had a relative with early coronary disease, meaning before age 60, then that puts them at much higher risk of heart disease themselves.  And there's nothing you can do; it's wired into your genes."

But there is good news because several risk factors can be improved, such as for smokers to stop smoking.  Sparling said he understands that quitting "isn't easy. For the average smoker it takes 4 to 5 quit attempts before they're successful."  That's why he encourages building up a good support group, including your physician, to help you through the quit attempt.

For those with high blood pressure and high cholesterol, Sparling said they can get medications to help moderate their pressure and cholesterol levels.  When it comes to cholesterol, he described statin drugs as "absolute live savers."

Inactivity is another risk factor which can be easily controlled, just by getting moving.

"There's the misconception that you have to get a treadmill and get cute running shoes and shirts and start running 5Ks," Sparling said.

That can often be overwhelming for many people and isn't necessary, he said.

"A little can go a long way.  Walking as little as an hour a week can reduce your risk and is better for you than not doing anything at all," he said.

The cardiologist said he recommends his own patients take a slower and simpler approach to becoming more active.  

"I only ask them to every month do something more than they did the month before.  So if they started in May with walking around the block for 30 minutes 3 times a week, for June maybe they start walking 30 minutes 5 times a week, or 45 minutes 3 times a week.  Just so long as they are doing a little bit more," he said.  "If you do that and look back after a year, you'll realize how different you feel."

Since obesity and diabetes are other important risk factors for heart disease, Sparling said changing your diet is another way you can help minimize your risk.

He recommends the Mediterranean diet, which was featured in the April 4 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine, which he referred to as "the bible for doctors."

"It was the first time ever that a diet was validated by a scientific study as actually reducing the rates of heart attack, stroke and death from cardiovascular disease," Sparling said.

As part of the study, people on the Mediterranean diet were asked to consume foods common to Mediterranean countries such as Italy and Greece.  This included consuming 4 tablespoons of olive oil a day, 3 servings of nuts a week, 3 servings of fish or seafood a week, and white meat instead of red meats, as well as the daily 5 servings of fruit and vegetables.

He said the study found that one death, heart attack or stroke was avoided for every 33 people who ate the diet.

"So of the people in this room, if you did nothing else, no other preventative measures, but eat this diet, then one of you would be saved," Sparling said to the women attending the hospital event Thursday night.

The study, which was originally slated to last for 10 years was ended half-way through because the benefits of the Mediterranean diet were already so clear after just 5 years, he said.

"So it doesn't have to have been a lifelong thing.  You can change your diet now and start seeing results," Sparling said.

To learn the best ways you can help reduce your risk of heart disease, consult your physician.  And to learn more about cardiovascular disease and its impact on women in general, visit