One day five years ago, Beatriz Martinez remembers that she felt symptoms she had never experienced before, including shortness of breath, dizziness and a pain in her chest. This occurred after an exercise routine, and so she dismissed the discomfort and pain as just overexertion. But it was something much more serious.
Ms. Martinez, now 57, was having a heart attack.
“I came home afterward and started vomiting,” she recalls. “The pain became sharper. I felt a burning sensation in my chest … That’s when I decided to go to the emergency room at the hospital. When I arrived, I was immediately diagnosed with a heart attack.”
(Watch now: The Baptist Health News Team hears from Beatriz Martinez about her heart attack and lifestyle changes to improve heart health. Also here from Alvaro Gomez, M.D., cardiologist with Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute. Video by Steve Pipho.)
Ms. Martinez’s case is not unusual. It is another reminder of how heart disease can affect women as much, if not more, than men. The classic age-old symptom of chest pain is associated mostly with men. Women can certainly experience chest pain, but they should also be on the lookout for less obvious symptoms, such as light-headedness, excessive sweating, nausea, indigestion, and palpitations — sometimes in addition to shortness of breath and back pain. All of these were symptoms felt by Ms. Martinez.
“Women must learn about the health of their hearts. We don’t know that 1 in every 3 women dies due to heart disease,” says Ms. Martinez, who has taken on a personal mission of warning women of the dangers of ignoring signs of potential heart disease and not doing enough to take care of themselves.
For women, heart disease is deadlier than all forms of cancer combined.
“The classic history of chest pain that is a pressure sensation in the middle of the chest is mostly in men,” says Alvaro Gomez, M.D.,  a cardiologist with Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute . “Women can have that same symptom during a heart attack, but they can also have completely atypical symptoms, such as nausea, dizziness, short black-out spells and back pain. These are very common presentations in women. In fact, we’ve had many patients come through our emergency room complaining of these symptoms that turned out to be a heart attack.”
Ms. Martinez now says that she does regular aerobic exercises to stay heart healthy, and has improved her diet. For overall cardiovascular health, the American Heart Association recommends  at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity at least five days per week for a total of 150 minutes.
“Before all this, I had the wrong idea,” she explains. “I used to exercise but wouldn’t do any cardio exercises because I was lazy. So, I would lift weights … because I wanted to keep my curves and be in good shape. Your heart needs weight-lifting exercises but also needs cardiovascular exercise. I tell women in my community to take care of their hearts by exercising, dieting, and taking their medications.”