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Heart Attacks Can Happen to Anyone. That Means Women, Too

Woman experiences signs of heart attack

Everyone needs to take care of their heart.

“There is a misconception among some people that heart attacks and heart disease primarily affects men, but this is simply not the case,” said Lisa Freed, MD, a cardiologist and director of the Women’s Heart and Vascular Program at Yale New Haven Hospital.

Consider this: “Heart disease is actually extremely prevalent in women,” Dr. Freed said. “It is, in fact, the number one killer of American women. If you combine heart disease and stroke, one out of every three female deaths in America each year is attributable to heart disease and stroke. That’s one woman every 80 seconds in America who dies of cardiovascular disease.”

But Dr. Freed and other specialists with Yale New Haven Health’s Heart and Vascular Center believe there is a silver lining to these sobering statistics. “The statistics can sound quite grim,” admitted Dr. Freed, “but, if you look at the American Heart Association’s statistics, 80 percent of cardiovascular disease is preventable if you identify the risk factors and treat them.”

Cardiologists across Yale New Haven Health are doing just that. For example, Meghana Rao Brito, MD, a cardiologist at L+M Hospital and assistant professor of Cardiovascular Medicine with Yale School of Medicine, actively coaches her patients to try to improve their cardiovascular health.

“I see many women as patients,” Dr. Rao Brito said, “and if you ask most of them what they consider to be their biggest health risk, they usually say breast cancer. In fact, heart disease is number one.”

Signs of heart attack

Signs of heart attack include the most common symptoms, such as chest pain or pain radiating down an arm, often the left arm. However, heart attack symptoms can also feel like gas or heartburn. Symptoms in women are often even more vague, including:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Pain in the neck, jaw, throat, abdomen and back
  • Feeling out of breath

“Any woman who is experiencing these symptoms for no obvious reason should absolutely seek medical help immediately,” Dr. Rao Brito said. “We recommend calling 911, because every second counts when your heart is at stake. The faster you act and get help the better chance that your heart attack can be treated, and we can save your heart muscles from damage.”

Dr. Rao Brito specializes in cardiovascular disease in women as well as cardiovascular imaging, including echocardiography and nuclear medicine. She is involved with expanding the Yale New Haven Women’s Heart and Vascular Program with personalized medical care, including at Yale New Haven Health’s location in Uncasville.

“I chose the field of cardiology because it presents a true opportunity to improve the lives of patients,” Dr. Rao Brito said. “In recent years, we’ve developed a greater understanding of the disease processes behind the ‘number one killer in America,’ and this has given us the ability to prevent as well as treat common pathologies including coronary artery disease, heart failure and arrhythmias. I love building relationships with my patients and seeing how testing, education, treatments and lifestyle changes can really improve lives.”

Tips for better heart health

  • Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables
  • Avoiding processed foods
  • Avoiding foods high in saturated fats
  • Checking your blood pressure and cholesterol regularly
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Quitting smoking
  • Drinking alcohol only in moderation
  • Getting regular exercise, even just walking
  • Taking medications as directed
  • Working with your care team to assess your risks

Yale New Haven Health specialists in cardiovascular medicine also always strive for an integrated and comprehensive approach to each patient’s care, which means collaborating with experts in behavioral health, diabetes, exercise physiology, gynecology, nutrition, obstetrics, sleep medicine and smoking cessation. This multidisciplinary approach ensures comprehensive and personalized care for every patient.

“We encourage all patients to discuss their cardiovascular health with their primary care providers and to consider seeing a cardiologist if you have a family history of heart disease or heart attack,” Dr. Rao Brito said. “We are here to listen, and we’re here to put the full scope of our health system at your disposal to help in all the ways we can.”

Dr. Freed agreed: “In my profession, there is no greater honor than to save a life, and our treatments and guidance for all patients can help improve and save lives.”