Heart Smart

Cholesterol and Heart Disease

What’s the nation’s No. 1 killer? Heart disease. It causes one death every 35 seconds. Don’t be one of the statistics. My father and his mother were but you don't have to be.

What’s cholesterol? It’s a type of lipid or fat. In our bodies, it travels through our blood stream in particles called lipoproteins.

Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) are considered bad cholesterol because they can lead to a buildup of plaque in your arteries.

A mass of plaque can narrow your arteries and restrict blood flow – much like trying to sip juice through a clogged straw. Eventually, the plaque ruptures and a blood clot forms, cutting off the flow of blood, oxygen and nutrients to the brain.

Hello, heart attack and stroke!

High-density lipoproteins (HDL), on the other hand, are good cholesterol because they pick up the LDL clogging your arteries and take it to the liver, where it’s processed and eventually excreted.

Heart disease is not necessarily the first issue that comes to mind when women think about their health. Yet approximately 450,000 women suffer heart attacks each year. Understanding the facts is the first step to protecting your health. Separate myth from reality.

Myth #1: The pain is in my arm, not my chest, so I shouldn’t worry.

Reality: Heart disease is the #1 killer of men… and women. Women die from heart attacks because they often don’t recognize the symptoms until it’s too late. Until recently, many health care providers also missed heart attacks in women (and still do occasionally) because women don’t always have the same symptoms as men do.

Men usually have heaviness in the left side of their chest, a feeling that’s often described as having an elephant sitting atop them. This symptom can be accompanied by pain going down the left arm or up the neck, sweating and shortness of breath.

Many women having a heart attack don’t have chest pain at all. They may have jaw, arm, back or stomach pain or an overwhelming feeling of fatigue along with shortness of breath. Or they may feel as if they have a bad flu and may experience nausea and vomiting. Some women do have the same symptoms as men, and these classic symptoms should not be ignored.

One study done by the National Institutes of Health found that most women experience symptoms about a month before the actual heart attack. The most common warning signs were unusual fatigue, sleep problems, shortness of breath, indigestion and anxiety.

Women have great instincts, particularly about their own bodies. If you know that you are more tired than usual or simply are not feeling like yourself, especially if you have one or more risk factors for heart disease, see your practitioner as soon as possible.

If you think you are having a heart attack, call 911 immediately. While you are waiting for the ambulance, chew an aspirin (an adult 325 mg dose or two baby aspirins). Do not take aspirin if you are allergic to it. Once the ambulance arrives, the paramedics will begin treatment immediately. Going to the emergency room on your own will delay treatment. Time is crucial: the earlier you are treated, the better your chances of maintaining healthy heart muscle and of having a quick recovery.

Check back tomorrow as we look at Myth #2.

Janet Horn, M.D. and Robin H. Miller, M.D., authors of The Smart Woman's Guide to Midlife and Beyond

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