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First signs different, but threat similar for men & women

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POSTED July 24, 2012 6:07 p.m.

Special to 209 Health & Wellness

While heart disease continues to receive a lot of attention, certain myths surrounding the disease persist.

A couple of the most common myths are that heart disease is more common in men than women, and that the first signs of a heart attack are the same for both men and women, says Dr. Mary Ann McLaughlin, medical director of the cardiac health program at The Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York.

Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in men and women in the United States, affecting both sexes relatively equally. “Women are more afraid of dying from cancer,” says McLaughlin. “But in fact, they are much more likely to die from heart disease.”

Also, the first signs of a heart attack can manifest themselves in different ways between men and women. While both men and women can experience the more well-known symptoms like chest pain or tightness and a shooting pain in the left arm, here are the most common differences in symptoms by sex, according to McLaughlin.

The more obvious symptoms are more prevalent in men, which might be why research shows that men go to the emergency room with symptoms much earlier in than women.

More subtle symptoms are more likely in women. These include shortness of breath, sweating or dizziness, nausea, severe fatigue, sudden sleep disturbances, pain radiating through the jaw, small of the back or between the shoulder blades.

“Women with diabetes are about twice as susceptible to heart attacks as men with the condition,” says McLaughlin. “Increased risk factors for women also include having an autoimmune disorder and a history of gestational diabetes or preeclampsia during pregnancies.”

Knowing the first signs of a heart attack is important, but reducing your risks for heart disease is the best way to avoid experiencing one. McLaughlin offers the following tips for a healthy heart:

• Reduce salt intake. Limiting your consumption of processed foods can help with this, as they are often high in salt.

• Choose your fats wisely. Use olive oil instead of butter, snack on nuts instead of other sugary and high-fat snacks, and take supplements like flax seed oil that can boost your levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which can reduce artery inflammation. Consuming more omega-3s can also help you reduce your LDL (bad cholesterol) levels.

• Get regular exercise. A good rule of thumb is when balanced with a proper diet, 30 minutes of exercise a day will help you maintain your current weight, while 60 minutes will help you lose weight. If that seems like a lot, try to work exercises in to your daily tasks by taking the stairs instead of the elevator or walking or biking to work. Maintaining a healthy weight lowers your risk for cardiovascular disease.

• Ask your doctor whether a daily regimen of low-dose aspirin would be appropriate for you, as it could lower your risk of a heart attack.

• Maintain a daily intake of 1,000 mg of vitamin D, which can be found in some of the same fatty fish that contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Vitamin D supplements can also help you achieve this, as low levels are associated with heart disease and high blood pressure. Exposure to sunshine also helps your body produce vitamin D, but don’t forget your sunscreen.

• Know your numbers. Your doctor can help you get your readings and give you advice on how to meet the following goals for optimum heart health:

Total cholesterol: less than 200

LDL (bad cholesterol): less than 100

HDL (good cholesterol): greater than or equal to 40

Total cholesterol to HDL ratio: less or equal to 4.4 for women and less than or equal to 5 for men

Triglycerides: less than 150

Blood pressure: less than 120 systolic and less than 80 diastolic

Non-fasting glucose: less than 120

Fasting glucose: less than 100

Hemoglobin A1c: less than 7

To learn more about heart disease and care, and to hear stories from patients who have experienced heart disease, visit www.mountsinai.org/heart.

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