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TPR Lifeline: Heart Attack Symptoms Can Vary By Sex

Dr.Watts_.jpg
Wendy Rigby
/
Texas Public Radio
James Watts, MD, is Chief of Cardiology at Brooke Army Medical Center.

When Star Wars actress Carrie Fisher died suddenly last year after suffering a cardiac arrest on an airplane at the age of 60, many women wondered: would they know if they were in the midst of a heart problem?

In today’s TPR Lifeline, Bioscience-Medicine reporter Wendy Rigby talks to Dr. James Watts, Chief of Cardiology at Brooke Army Medical Center about what women and men need to know when it comes to symptoms of a life-threatening problem. Here's a transcript of the interview.

  

Rigby: Heart disease is the number one killer of men and women. But many of us who’ve watched too much TV and too many movies think of people grabbing their chests and falling to the floor if a heart problem occurs. Dr. Watts, some of the symptoms can actually be subtle so it’s not always that simple or clear, is it?

Watts: Chest pain is the most common symptom specifically for men. Other things to clue you in that there could be some sort of acute episode happening – shortness of breath, fatigue, indigestion, loss of consciousness.

What are the main symptoms and what are really the differences between men and women?

The differences in men and women, certainly men present to the hospital in the more traditional fashion with the chest pain syndrome. Women, on the other hand, are one of the types of patients that present to the hospital with shortness of breath, indigestion, fatigue.

Now here’s the problem with that. Then you just dismiss it as something else and you’ve got a problem.

When the symptoms are atypical, such as having heartburn or lightheadedness or fatigue, it’s very easy to write off the symptoms to some other less grave illness.

So what do you tell people? How can we pay attention to that without being over-reactive?

When you have a patient that has risk, I think it’s important to educate them what the risk factors for heart disease are. And those are, in short, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, high cholesterol, and smoking. And those are very potent risk factors. And in somebody that has risk, you really want them to be extra vigilant for any type of symptomatology that occurs between the chin and the belly button.

But I think women may take it for granted that the heart attack is their husband’s problem and not theirs.

I’ve absolutely seen that mindset in patients. They sit back and say ‘you know, I’ve never really considered myself at risk for heart disease. I was more concerned with other types of grave diseases such as breast cancer, cervical cancer and ovarian cancer. And usually they’re shocked to find out that heart disease is very prevalent in females. Certainly not as much as males at the younger ages, but as women age, the risk increases to on par with a man’s risk by the late sixth decade.

And you are much more likely to die of a heart attack than from one of those other diseases.

Absolutely. Overall, in the United States, the most common cause of death for all people is heart disease. And certainly that risk increases as we all age, but overall, absolutely correct. So we do have to really come together as a community and really attack this group of diseases with absolute vigor.

Dr. James Watts, Chief of Cardiology at Brooke Army Medical Center. Thank you so much for being here today.

Oh, my pleasure. Thank you very much.