Heart disease in the United States claims the life of one American woman every 60 seconds, according to the American Heart Association. Despite its prevalence, the facts surrounding cardiovascular disease in women remain misunderstood and overlooked. For example, many women don’t know that their symptoms of a heart attack will vary greatly from that of their male counterparts. Additionally, factors concerning heart disease vary by race and socioeconomic class, affecting the timeliness of their diagnosis and their quality of life.

Shelly Harden, a community health worker with the Health Care Collaborative of Rural Missouri (HCC), learned firsthand what it’s like to experience the signs and symptoms of a heart attack without realizing it until far too late. “By the time the paramedics got there, they couldn’t find a pulse,” Harden describes her experience to the HCC/Live Well podcast. “I really did not know much of the signs for heart issues in women.” Harden details severe shoulder and jaw pain, along with what she thought was indigestion throughout the night, as hidden symptoms of her heart attack. The symptoms persisted over the course of an entire evening and night, manifesting as chest pressure, extreme fatigue, and nausea before Harden felt something was seriously wrong and called for help.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only half of American women know that heart disease is their number one killer. Additionally, one-third of women have some form of cardiovascular disease, women make up half of all cardiovascular deaths in the U.S., and more than 400,000 women every year are expected to be impacted by new, chronic, and fatal cardiovascular disease.

The AHA outlines several risk factors for heart disease among women that include smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, sedentary lifestyle, and diabetes. Furthermore, an individual’s age, gender, race, ethnicity, family history, and personal medical history are also factors that one must consider when determining the state of their heart health. While certain biological factors can’t be helped, lifestyle decisions – such as smoking cessation, regular exercise, and healthy eating – can make a world of difference for those at greatest risk of suffering from cardiovascular disease. According to the AHA, the risk of heart attack and stroke can be reduced by 80% if such lifestyle changes are made, even if the person has a genetic disposition to developing the disease.

Now a heart attack survivor, Harden immediately quit smoking and took up healthy eating and exercise. Harden also became an ambassador for the Kansas City branch of the American Heart Association. “There really weren’t any support groups for women my age,” she states. “I did go to cardiac rehab, but the majority of the individuals there were elderly. Their situation was different from mine. There was a time where I felt depressed … not having anyone in my situation or my age to talk to about the heart attack.” The AHA determines that the vast majority of heart attacks and strokes could be prevented with the right education and awareness. Many individuals are of the false mindset that heart disease only happens to elderly people and men, when the reality is that it can strike anyone of any gender or age.

Regan Judd, an athlete with a history of heart disease in her family, was confronted with this reality at just 19 years old. Judd underwent open heart surgery for a congenital condition and, like Harden, is now a spokesperson for the AHA’s Go Red for Women movement.

The Women’s Heart Disease Awareness Study reported that doctors are less likely to speak with young female patients about their risk of cardiovascular disease. Additionally, women age 25-36 had the lowest rates of heart health awareness out of any age group. However, contrary to common belief, racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to listen to doctors who discuss heart disease with them and are most apt to take the risks seriously.

If Harden could speak with her younger self, knowing what she knows now, she would say, “Know the signs, know the numbers, and be your own advocate. If you don’t get your answers one way, go to another doctor or facility and see if you can get help. But don’t ignore the signs.” There are different stages of a heart attack, and the warning signals of a fatal heart attack can be present from weeks to months before it strikes. This reality makes it all the more important to understand the risks and know the signs.

February is National Heart Health Month and Friday, Feb. 5 is Go Red for Women Day. The purpose of Go Red for Women is to raise much-needed awareness among women, of all ages, about their risk for cardiovascular disease and encourage them to take control of their heart health.

For Harden, this day holds special significance. “That day always reminds me that I had a second chance at life,” she said. “I came so close to death, so I appreciate that day and still being here for my son. He came very close to losing his mom. It’s just an appreciation for life, being here, and being able to help other women so they don’t go through the same situation that I did… Heart disease does not discriminate, so it’s very important for people to know what the signs are, what your numbers should be, and how to be your [own] advocate.” 
To schedule a well woman exam, call one of HCC’s Live Well Community Health Centers for an appointment.