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In The News

Anthony Pearson, MD, St. Luke's Hospital

Heart attack or indigestion?

For years, you've heard about the signs you or a loved is having a heart attack - chest pain, arm pain, sweating and nausea. But, take note. The symptoms of a heart attack are often much different for women. Indigestion, unusual fatigue, trouble sleeping and shortness of breath are a few symptoms women may experience during a heart attack, symptoms quite subtle and easily ignored.

Five times more women die from heart disease than breast cancer, making heart disease the leading cause of death in American women. Fortunately, 80 percent of heart disease is preventable.

Women can prevent or decrease their risk of heart disease by treating or modifying the following risk factors: diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, smoking and hyperlipidemia, a condition involving an increase in lipids, or fats, in the bloodstream. Women should strive to be physically active, maintain a healthy diet and have regular checkups with their physician.

Early detection of heart disease is equally important. There are two screenings to consider for early detection of atherosclerosis, the fatty plaque buildup in arteries that leads to heart attacks. One is an ultrasound scan of the large arteries in the neck that take blood to the brain. It can make early plaque formation visible.

Another screening test available is a coronary calcium scoring test. This non-invasive scan of the heart assesses for calcium buildup in the arteries to the heart, the coronary arteries. Calcium is not present in normal arteries but can build up in the arteries along with the development of fatty plaque. To be clear, the calcium supplements women take to prevent osteoporosis have no effect on calcium buildup in the coronary arteries.

Women are often the ones who take action for the wellbeing of everyone in the family - for husbands, children and even aging parents - at the expense of their own health. It's critically important women take action for their own health and find out their risk for heart disease. Talking with your doctor, getting the necessary screenings and learning about heart disease are few steps you or a loved one can take to ensure heart health.

Anthony Pearson, MD, is a cardiologist with Cardiac Specialists of St. Luke's Hospital. Call 314-205-6699 or visit his Meet the Doctor page.

This article was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on April 23, 2009.