MARION — Heart disease in women is a major problem that is under-diagnosed and under-treated, according to Dr. Victor Mwansa of River to River Heart Group.

“Heart disease is the number one killer of women, not even breast cancer beats it,” Dr. Mwansa said. “Women tend to present with atypical symptoms.”

For women, symptoms of a heart attack can be sweating (diaphoresis), shortness of breath, nausea or jaw and arm pain. They don’t have the feeling of crushing chest pain that men often experience.

As a result, they tend to wait longer to seek medical care. By the time they come to the hospital, diagnosis has been delayed. Because diagnosis is delayed, treatment is delayed.

“When you take them to cath lab, they tend to have smaller arteries,” Dr. Mwansa said. “They tend to present later in age which means they have more calcifications in their arteries and more complications.”

In America today, about six million women have heart attacks each year. Dr. Mwansa, along with the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology, wants women and their physicians to recognize the risk factors and symptoms heart attacks.

Diabetes, smoking and hypertension are the biggest risk factors, along with poor diet, little to no exercise and a family history of coronary artery disease. Smoking while taking oral contraceptives greatly raises the risk of a heart attack, Mwansa said. Some risks can be uncovered through routine blood work.

“We need to talk to our younger patients about prevention and treat comorbid diseases,” Mwansa said. “We need to educate our women that they may be having a heart attack if they are short of breath or nauseous.”

Symptoms should be evaluated quickly, so heart disease can be diagnosed and treated quickly.

Dr. Mwansa said that culturally and historically, women were believed to be at less risk of developing heart disease.

“As cardiologiests, we need to overcome that culture. The consequences of heart attacks are more devastating in women,” he said.

His prescription for good heart health includes getting 30 minutes of exercise (break a sweat) three to five times a week; stop smoking or never start; and eat a heart-healthy diet.

“Never second-guess your heart health. Any symptom you get could be a heart attack — nausea, diaphoresis, back pain,” Mwansa said.

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