DEAR ABBY: A couple of months ago, I suffered a heart attack. It happened one morning while I was getting ready for work. I felt a lot of pressure in my chest and thought it was indigestion. I sat down for a few minutes, thinking it would pass -- but then I broke out in a cold sweat and became very nauseated.
My husband took one look at me and insisted we go straight to the emergency room. When we arrived, they gave me some tests and told me I was having a heart attack. I couldn't believe it. Like many women, I thought heart attacks happened only to men.
I didn't know that women can have entirely different symptoms than men. My ignorance could have killed me.
Abby, please urge women over the age of 40 who have a relative who has suffered a heart attack at an early age, or women being medicated for high blood pressure or cholesterol, to talk to their doctors about their risk for heart attacks.
Recognizing the symptoms could save their lives. -- LUCKY SURVIVOR IN DELAWARE
DEAR LUCKY: Thank you for the heads-up. According to the American Heart Association, coronary heart disease kills an estimated 250,000 women of all ages and ethnicities every year.
While some heart attacks are sudden and intense, like the kind portrayed in the movies where the person gasps, clutches his chest and falls to the ground, the symptoms in women are often far more subtle.
The May 2004 issue of the Mayo Clinic Health Letter had an eye-opening item on this subject. It related that a recent survey of more than 500 female heart attack sufferers had shown their warning signs were often not pain-related.
"More than 70 percent of those surveyed reported feeling unusual fatigue. Other ... symptoms included sleep disturbance, shortness of breath, indigestion and anxiety.
"The majority of the women reported they experienced these warning signs for more than one month before their heart attack, suggesting the symptoms were related to a heart problem.
"Less than 30 percent ... experienced chest discomfort before their heart attacks. Those who did described it as aching, tightness or pressure -- not pain. In addition, only 57 percent reported chest discomfort during their actual heart attacks. They were more likely to experience shortness of breath, weakness and fatigue.
"The absence of chest pain may be a reason why some women don't recognize the symptoms of a heart attack or are misdiagnosed when they seek medical care."
For those who may not know it, heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women. That's why it is so important that women discuss heart disease with their doctors.
The American Heart Association has a risk-reduction program for women. To join, call 888-694-3278. Simple lifestyle changes can help us avoid having a heart attack. So make the call. It could save your life.