Ask just about any woman you know what illness she fears most of all, and she’ll likely respond with some type of cancer – most likely breast cancer. Yet, heart disease remains the No. 1 killer of women in the United States, according to the National Institutes of Health .
Much like in October, when everything turns pink in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, red is in style in February for Heart Month, and women receive constant reminders to pay attention to their hearts.
“It’s important for women to realize that they are as susceptible to cardiovascular disease, especially coronary artery disease, or atherosclerosis, as men are,” said Lauren Frost, M.D. , a Board-certified cardiologist and internal medicine physician affiliated with Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute  at South Miami Hospital . “Women get blocked arteries and have heart attacks just like men.”
But unlike men, who are more prone to classic symptoms with blocked arteries and heart attacks, Dr. Frost says women’s symptoms tend to be more subtle and often are dismissed as stress, fatigue or indigestion.
“Women don’t commonly have the feeling that there’s an elephant sitting on their chest when they experience a heart attack,” she said. “Instead, they may notice chest discomfort or may become short of breath when experiencing stress or strong emotions.”
Dr. Frost stresses these are not normal reactions to physical exertion, especially if you’ve never experienced these sensations before. She says these symptoms don’t necessarily mean you’re having a heart attack, but they could indicate heart disease and should be evaluated by a physician to determine their cause.
She advises women to pay attention to their body’s signals, because they may need medical attention. These include:
• Chest discomfort
• Back, jaw or shoulder pain
• Nausea or gastrointestinal discomfort
• Shortness of breath
• Dizziness or feeling lightheaded
• Unexplained sweating
• No clear symptoms at all, but an awareness that something is wrong
Since these symptoms may have origins other than heart disease or heart attack, Dr. Frost points out that when heart-related, these signs may often:
• Come on suddenly and seemingly without cause.
• Occur together, although not all of these symptoms need to be experienced.
• Have not been experienced before.
• Last for awhile.
• Become progressively worse.
“I also tell my patients to be aware of their functional capacity,” Dr. Frost said. “If they can no longer perform activities that they have recently been able to, it’s a red flag something might be wrong.”
Heart Disease Risk Factors
Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute cardiologist Alvaro Gomez, M.D. , says that women who have risk factors for heart disease should especially consider the possibility that they have heart disease or are experiencing a heart attack when symptoms arise. These risk factors include:
• High blood pressure, or hypertension
• High cholesterol
• Family history of heart disease
• Excessive alcohol use
• Sleep apnea
• Inactive lifestyle
• Unhealthy diet
• Elevated C-reactive protein (CRP), indicating the body’s level of inflammation
Dr. Gomez, like Dr. Frost, advises women not to ignore their own health while focusing on the health of their families.
“Get checked out regularly by your doctor,” he said. “We have many ways to prevent bad things from happening, but the first step is to be aware of your own risks.”
Dr. Gomez warns that while some risk factors, like age and family history, can’t be controlled, others can and should be. He recommends eating nutritious foods, exercising regularly, quitting smoking and controlling blood sugar to prevent the progression of heart disease. And for those who follow healthy lifestyles, but are plagued by heart disease, statins and other medications have been proven successful in managing heart disease and preventing heart attacks.
“The medical community has come a long way in realizing women are at risk for heart disease and heart attacks,” Dr. Gomez said. “Awareness, awareness and more awareness will continue to make more women realize they should listen to their hearts.”
Dr. Gomez and Dr. Frost will be featured speakers, addressing women and heart disease at free Community Health programs at West Kendall Baptist Hospital and South Miami Hospital  this month. Also, free heart health screenings  will be offered at various locations throughout Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe Counties in February.