Heart Burn or Heart Attack?
Why Heart Attacks Can Be Worse for Women
Women recover more slowly from a heart attack than men. Here’s how to change that.
By Vanessa Caceres
Medically Reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH
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Eight days after Rachel D’Souza-Siebert gave birth via C-section, she felt a terrible pain in her chest and back. She was 28 years old at the time, so she thought she probably couldn't be having heart trouble. But she also knew that after a C-section, women can develop a serious blockage in the lung artery called pulmonary embolism.
D’Souza-Siebert, her husband, and her newborn baby went to the emergency room right away. Four hours later, the physicians gave her a diagnosis she wasn’t expecting: She'd just had a heart attack.
And not just any kind: D’Souza-Siebert’s heart attack occurred after the wall in one of her arteries tore — an event that experts call a spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD).
But there’s one part of this story that shouldn’t surprise anyone: Heart disease is the number one killer of women today. And not only that, but in the wake of a heart attack, women experience more emotional difficulties than men, according to . Read on to find out why and how you can recover from a heart attack more quickly.
Why Recovery Is Harder for Women
Even though both men and women get heart disease, heart attacks are still more common in men than in women. That’s one reason that doctors can be slower to recognize that women, especially younger ones like D-Souza-Siebert, are having a heart attack, says JoAnne Foody, MD, medical director of the Pollin Cardiovascular Wellness Center at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.
Another reason: Family members and women themselves might not suspect a heart attack either, which can cause a delay in getting women to the hospital, says Dr. Foody. They may also wait to get their symptoms checked out.
“They think, ‘I can’t be sick; I have to get things done,’” she explains. But by the time women finally receive a diagnosis, their heart attacks may have caused more damage to their health — and that can make the recovery process evenmoredifficult, which may lead to further problems after they’re discharged from the hospital. A heart attack can also trigger stress, sadness, and depression, all of which might hinder a woman's ability to recover, says says Malissa J. Wood, MD, co-director of the Corrigan Women's Heart Health Program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
Cardiac rehab may help women in these situations, but only about 30 percent of women go, says Dr. Wood. Although rehab does require a serious time commitment, these programs help women learn more about exercise, nutrition, and stress management. “It’s a lifesaving opportunity — and yet, most women don’t take advantage of it,” Wood says.
RELATED:Heart Disease in Women: A Wake-Up Call
4 Ways to Bounce Back After a Heart Attack
The odds aren’t stacked against you. Here are four ways you can take better care of your physical and emotional health after a heart attack.
1. Go to cardiac rehab.Wood says she gives the “hard sell” to her patients, especially women, on the benefits of attending a rehab program. There’s no question that it’s a commitment, she says, adding that she has to work with patients to help them fit it into their lives. On average, sessions range from one to three hours, and take place several times a week for three months.
And not only has cardiac rehab been proven to reduce mortality, it can also be a powerful motivator to stay healthy. That’s what D’Souza-Siebert discovered at her rehab appointments, where meeting women who went through similar experiences gave her confidence to keep up her healthy routine.
2. Learn to say "no."Women have the tendency to put others before themselves, which is a surefire way to increase your stress. By learning to say "no," Wood says, you can better manage your stress and make it easier to exercise and eat healthier.
3. Find as much support as you need.The American Heart Association (AHA) has online resources and support groups that allow you to connect with people who've had similar experiences. D'Souza-Siebert, who wanted help with meal planning for her family, also found heart-healthy recipes there. And if you're comfortable with it, you might start a blog about your experience — this helped D'Souza-Siebert heal. It could be a way to process what you're going through, or to find community.
4. Enlist the help of loved ones.Don’t be shy about asking for help with your recovery or doing simple household chores, Foody says.
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