Skip to Content

NorthShore’s online source for timely health and wellness news, inspiring patient stories and tips to lead a healthy life.

Healthy You

The #1 Killer in Women? Heart Disease

February 24, 2011 1:00 PM with Dr. Eileen A. Kelly

The signs of a heart attack in women are different than in men. It’s important to know the differences. What’s your risk – did you know that everyone is at risk for a heart attack? Join Dr. Eileen Kelly, Cardiologist, as she discusses what women need to know about the warning signs of a heart attack and how to prevent it.

Catherine (Moderator) - 12:57 PM:
Welcome! Today’s chat: The #1 Killer in Women? Heart Disease will begin shortly. Please start submitting your questions and Dr. Eileen A. Kelly will begin answering them as soon as we get started. While you are waiting for the chat to begin, feel free to visit the Women's Heart Program to obtain more information about understanding the signs of a heart attack and how to prevent it.

Dr. Eileen A. Kelly (NorthShore) - 1:05 PM:
Good afternoon. I am Dr. Eileen Kelly. I am a Cardiologist with special interests in prevention and Women's Heart Disease.

  Mary (North Chicago, IL) - 1:05 PM:
If I stand up suddenly there's a rush like my heart is about to stop,then a quick rush of blood flow, what could this mean? I already have heart disease.
Dr. Eileen A. Kelly (NorthShore)
That's a good question. It could be a sign that you are dehydrated or may be a side effect of one of your medications. I would bring this question to the attention of your Cardiologist.

  Deanne (Wheeling, IL) - 1:06 PM:
The micro vessels around my heart constrict and stay constricted. The medication was working and even though I have lost over 40 pounds they have increase the medication and it seems to be getting worse. What causes this and will it ever get better?
Dr. Eileen A. Kelly (NorthShore)
It sounds like your are describing microvscular disease or Syndrome X which is more common in women. The inside lining of the heart arteries sometimes constrict when they are not supposed to. There are several medications that can be used to treat this and sometimes your body gets used to one medicine and you may have success if you doctor tries another medicine. Don't get discouraged! I am glad to hear that you have lost weight - keep up the good work!

  Cathy (Wilmette IL) - 1:09 PM:
What are the latest breakthroughs in detecting heart problems in women. I was told by a cardiologist that he was an expert because he did a paper in the '80s! I am sure there has been a lot of new thinking since then! Thanks
Dr. Eileen A. Kelly (NorthShore)
Hi Cathy, Yes we have learned a lot about heart disease in women since then. Primarily that the symptoms of heart disease in women can be much different in men. This has been very important in raising awareness in women that heart disease is the number one killer in women and also has helped us get women who are having symptoms to the Emergency Department quickly. Additionally, over the past 5 yrs or so we have learned much more about microvascular disease or Syndrome X - which is much more common in women. This is one of the more important research findings recently which has clinical implications.

  Joan (Wadsworth, IL) - 1:16 PM:
What is the life expectancy after bypass surgery?
Dr. Eileen A. Kelly (NorthShore)
Hi Joan. That is a very good question. Life expectancy after bypass surgery depends on several factors including your overall health before surgery and co-existing medical conditions (such as diabetes or lung disease). It is also dependent on whether or not you have had a heart attack or heart failure prior to surgery.

  Cassandra (Chicago, IL) - 1:19 PM:
I have pressure in my chest sometimes like someone is stepping on my chest. I take high blood pressure medcine. I was wondering why I have a pressure all of the time.
Dr. Eileen A. Kelly (NorthShore)
Hi Cassandra. I would definitely bring this concern to the attention of your primary care doctor. It is also important to make sure that your blood pressure is adequately controlled as that may cause a variety of symptoms. You may want to keep a journal of your symptoms and bring it to your doctor appointment to help him/her figure out the problem. If you have persistent symptoms or if your are concerned you should go to the nearest Emergency Department.

  Dawn (Chicago, IL) - 1:26 PM:
Even though I have no family history of heart attacks, exercise/train 10 hours a week (run and swim), eat healthy, little stress and do not smoke or drink alcohol, am I still at risk?
Dr. Eileen A. Kelly (NorthShore)
Yes, unfortunately the lifetime risk for developing Cardiovascular disease in women is 1 in 2 - meaning that one out of every two women will have some form of heart disease or stroke during their lifetime. The good news is that according to our most recent guidelines for prevention in women you (by your description) would be in the "optimal risk" category. This is assuming that your blood pressure and cholesterol are favorable. It is extremely important for you to continue with your healthy lifestyle as this has been shown to decrease your risk of heart attack or stroke by over 80%! Good job!

  Marjorie (Winnetka IL) - 1:30 PM:
Is it possible for a woman with a pacemaker to have a heart attack? If yes, what symptoms should one be aware of?
Dr. Eileen A. Kelly (NorthShore)
Hi Marjorie. The answer to your question is YES! A pacemaker is usually placed because of an electrical abnormality of the heart(electrician problem). Whereas a heart attack is caused by a plaque or small blood clot obstructing the flow of blood to the heart muscle(plumbing problem). The symptoms can be some type of chest pain or discomfort - it may radiate to the neck, arm, jaw or back. These symptoms are similar to the most common symtoms that men get. However, women more often than men can get shortness of breath, GI symptoms ("reflux" or "gerd", nausea/vomiting), back pain or fatigue as their only symptom of a heart attack.

  Mary (Chicago, IL) - 1:36 PM:
Do pregnant women face increased heart risks?
Dr. Eileen A. Kelly (NorthShore)
Hi Mary. Yes, there are increased heart risks during pregnancy. Fortunately the incidence is low in this otherwise young, healthy population. There is an increased risk of stroke during pregnancy. We also can see coronary and carotid artery dissection as well as a cardiomyopathy(heart failure/weakened heart muscle)during pregnancy although these problems are rare.

  Lin (Hammond, IN) - 1:41 PM:
I have a possible bundle branch block; have had symptoms of mi for 10-14 days but put it off thinking just, perhaps, 'waning hormones.' I wonder what your advice might be; am awaiting a referral to a cardiologist.
Dr. Eileen A. Kelly (NorthShore)
I would immediately seek medical attention by calling 911 and going to the nearest Emergency Department. I would not wait.

  Leslie (Northbrook, IL) - 1:43 PM:
I was just diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, which I heard increases the risk of heart disease. Are there any additional steps I should take to help prevent it?
Dr. Eileen A. Kelly (NorthShore)
Hi Leslie. Yes, there is a lot you can do. It's not easy - but very important because metabolic syndrome definitely places you at increased risk for heart disease and means you are on the road to diabetes. Exercise, healthy diet and weight loss are the keys! I would check with your doctor first to make sure it is ok for you to exercise. Your exercise goals are 30-45 minutes 5 days a week. Start slow, don't set the bar too high initially! If needed you can ask your doctor for a referral to a nutritionist for a healthy approach. Low sodium diet, the DASH diet and Mediterranean style diets are also good guides for you to follow.

  Sheila (North Chicago) - 1:49 PM:
How will know if I'm having a heart attack, because I have pains at times.
Dr. Eileen A. Kelly (NorthShore)
Great question. I would bring this concern up with your doctor who can assess the pains and decide if further testing is needed. If you ever have the pain and are concerned you should go right to the Emergency Room.

  Kristina (Evanston, IL) - 1:51 PM:
Can diabetes in women also be linked to heart disease in women?
Dr. Eileen A. Kelly (NorthShore)
Absolutely. In fact diabetic women are 3-7x more likely to have a heart attack than non-diabetic women.

  Monique (Chicago, IL) - 1:53 PM:
What are some good preventitive measures to avoid heart disease. I'm 37 with a family history of heart disease and I don't want to be caught off guard. I watch what I eat but admit to having a bit of a sweet tooth. Any suggestions?
Dr. Eileen A. Kelly (NorthShore)
Great question. I would start by making an appointment with your primary care doctor and asking to have a global heart risk assessment. He/she will evaluate all of your risk factors and make sure they are at optimal levels. Then, if ok with your doctor, I would suggest starting (or continuing) an exercise program with a goal of 30-45 minutes 5 days/wk. I would keep a food diary and really evaluate what you eat - an occasional treat is ok - in moderation. The Mediterranean diet or the DASH style diet are both good dietary models to follow. Of course, no smoking!

Catherine (Moderator) - 1:55 PM:
Thank you everyone for your great participation, the chat will be ending in approximately 10 minutes. Please submit any final questions you have.

  Olivia (Wheeling, IL) - 1:58 PM:
I read that low estrogen levels can help attribute to heart disease, does that mean you’re automatically at greater risk post menopause?
Dr. Eileen A. Kelly (NorthShore)
Hi Olivia. Yes, post-menopausal women are at greater risk of Cardiovascular Disease. It is thought this is in large part due to the decrease in our natural estrogen made by the body.

  Leslie (Northbrook, IL) - 1:59 PM:
Why is it that women are less likely to receive beta blockers after a heart attack?
Dr. Eileen A. Kelly (NorthShore)
Great question! Unfortunately women are less likely to receive beta blockers, cholesterol lowering medicines and even aspirin after heart attacks! There is no reason for this other than oversite on the part of their physicians (unless a contraindication to a particular medicine is identified) because women benefit in this situation just as men do.

  Melody (Highland Park, IL) - 2:03 PM:
Is heart disease hereditary for females?
Dr. Eileen A. Kelly (NorthShore)
Hi Melody. Yes, heart disease can be inherited by women too.

Catherine (Moderator) - 2:06 PM:
Thank you again for participating in our chat today. For more information please visit our Women’s Heart Program pages.

Also, a transcript of this chat will be available shortly.

This chat has ended.

Thank you very much for your participation.