Prevention & Recovery

Women's health: How to recognize heart attack symptoms

Women's health: How to recognize heart attack symptoms

Photography by © Image by: Photography by © Author: Canadian Living

Prevention & Recovery

Women's health: How to recognize heart attack symptoms

Diane Shipclark was tired; for about six months, she had felt her energy levels slipping. "I didn't think anything of it," she recalls. "All the women I work with, who were around my age, were tired."

Even though she was exhausted, Shipclark headed off for a solo camping trip, thinking the fresh air would do her good. She spent the weekend battling flu-like symptoms and stomach discomfort, napping during the day when it got too bad.

By the time she got home a few days later, her symptoms were unrelenting. Home alone, with a sudden sense of anxiety gripping her, Shipclark dialed 911.

It was a call that saved her life. Though she assumed she was simply feeling under the weather, Shipclark was having a heart attack.

The symptoms of a heart attack
Most of what we know about heart attacks comes from studying white middle-aged men. A 2003 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association studied midlife women who had suffered from heart attacks, and underlined two key differences between men and women: Most women didn't suffer from chest pains, and almost all women in the study reported symptoms that began months before their respective heart attacks.

Like Shipclark, over 70 per cent of the women who participated in the study reported suffering from unusual fatigue. Other common symptoms in the months prior to the heart attack were trouble sleeping, indigestion, anxiety and shortness of breath.

During a heart attack, the symptoms most women reported were shortness of breath, weakness, fatigue, cold sweats and dizziness. With the absence of dramatic chest pains, the lack of something obviously acute led some of the women to ignore their symptoms, or worse still, to be misdiagnosed by a doctor or heath care professional.

While fatigue, difficulty sleeping and many other symptoms are also symptoms of menopause, any sudden increase or onset of symptoms should be checked out by a doctor. "Pay attention to what your body tells you. Don't ignore anything!" Shipclark says.

Reduce your risk
Two years and a triple bypass procedure later, Shipclark can see all the red flags leading up to her heart attack. 18 months prior to landing the hospital, she was diagnosed with high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and was put on medication.

"In my mind, I thought, 'Oh well, the medicine will take care of it,'" Shipclark says; she continued to smoke and dine regularly on junk food.

Since her heart attack, Shipclark has changed her eating habits, given up smoking and taken up exercise. But don't wait until a heart attack to change your lifestyle; it's estimated that you can reduce your risk of heart disease by as much as 82 per cent by eating right, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking and getting regular exercise.

"Start small in changing your lifestyle, because you can't change it all at once," Shipclark says. And if you think you don't have time to take care of yourself, consider this sobering fact: Children learn from their parents. By adopting a healthier lifestyle for yourself, you'll be passing it on to your children and grandchildren.

Lessons to learn
Since recovering from her heart attack, Shipclark has participated in The Heart Truth program, speaking about her experience and recovery. "There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about it," she says. "There are a lot of 'what ifs.'"

Diane Shipclark told her story in The Heart Truth's documentary The Beat of Life. Shipclark hopes that her experiences, along with those of four other women touched by heart disease, can help women take control of their own health.

"In town here, when I had my heart attack, I couldn't find any women who had a heart attack in Nanaimo [BC]," Shipclark says. "Now, I get calls, people saying, 'My friend just had a heart attack; can I give her your name?'"

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Women's health: How to recognize heart attack symptoms