By April Daniels Hussar, SELF magazine
When you think "heart attack," you probably think, "that won't happen to me." So it might surprise you to learn that a woman dies every single minute of every day, thanks to heart disease, according to the American Heart Association.
Also surprising: Women often don't have the same kinds of symptoms as men during a heart attack.
Believe it or not, a study from 2005 found that a stunning 30-50 percent of heart attack symptoms in women go unrecognized by emergency and medical professionals, says Pamela Stewart Fahs, professor and Decker Chair in Rural Nursing at Binghamton University's Decker School of Nursing.
Fahs surmises that those figures have improved somewhat in the last few years, thanks to an increased awareness in the medical community about heart disease in women. However, Fahs says another recent survey showed that about half of all women don't believe heart disease is a problem for females, and that it's common for women to miss their own heart attack symptoms.
Missing warning signs means delaying help and treatment, which is why Fahs is collaborating with Melanie Kalman, associate professor and director of research, and Margaret Wells, assistant professor in the College of Nursing at SUNY Upstate Medical University, on a project called "Matters of Your Heart." Their goal is to educate women about the symptoms and reality of heart attacks, with the understanding that knowledge is power, and can literally mean the difference between life and death.
Related: 21 Good-For-You Snacks
"It's difficult to teach people about heart attack symptoms because you might just get one, or all, or more than one," Fahs told HealthySELF, which is why it's key to be aware of all the signs of a heart attack -- and how the symptoms for a woman can be different than they are for a man. Here are the five that Fahs says are most important to watch out for:
1. Chest discomfort or pain. "Often, women don't experience overwhelming, severe pain, but rather a sensation of discomfort," says Fahs. Men typically experience a very acute pain -- sometimes described like an elephant sitting on the chest -- but women often have chest discomfort that increases in severity over several hours to even a day or two.
2. Unusual and overwhelming fatigue. This is another symptom that men don't typically report. "Overwhelming fatigue is experienced most often by women; 67 percent of women survivors of heart attacks report experiencing unusual fatigue," says Fahs.
3. Sudden sweating, or breaking out in a cold sweat. Again, Fahs says this is more common in women than men.
4. Radiating pain. Common in both men and women, Fahs says the misconception here is that the pain only travels down your left arm. The reality is that pain can radiate into either arm or both arms, as well as into your back or jaw.
5. Difficulty breathing. Breathing difficulties, described by Fahs as a sudden shortness of breath not due to exertion, are commonly experienced by both men and women. According to Fahs, other symptoms can occur during a heart attack, such as feeling flushed, nauseous and/or dizzy, but they are not reported as frequently.
See More: 6 Secrets to Firing Up Your Metabolism
Heart disease isn't just a concern for older women, says Fahs. Younger women can also be at risk, especially if you have a family history of heart disease or exhibit any other risk factors, such as being a diabetic. Fahs shared with us the most important things you can do to protect yourself from heart disease:
Don't smoke. Fahs says, "If we could change only one thing that would make a huge difference in cardiovascular diseases and death, it would be to stop smoking!"
Get a move on. "We are a very sedentary society," Fahs says. Increasing your physical activity does a body -- and a heart -- good.
Eat a heart-healthy diet. Focus on lots of fruits and veggies, choosing lean proteins, getting enough fiber and sticking to healthy fats, while minimizing refined sugars, processed carbs and sodium.
Be aware of what Fahs calls your own "risk-profile." Make an appointment for a physical, and talk to your doctor about your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. You can also use online calculators like the Framington Risk Calculator to assess your personal risk.
Know the signs of a heart attack, and know what to do in a heart emergency. In an emergency, don't hesitate -- call 911. The sooner help arrives, the better your chances of recovery. To save someone else's life, read up on how to do hands-only CPR.
More From SELF:
Yoga Moves for Flat Abs
20 Superfoods for Weight Loss
Jillian Michaels: How to Lose Two Pounds a Week
The Healthiest Cities for Women
By April Daniels Hussar, SELF magazine