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Your Health

Why women get heartaches


All too often, a woman gets an ache in her chest and doesn’t know what to think. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women. But chest pain can be caused by other culprits, leaving women wondering what to do.

Seeing a doctor is the first step. Women who want additional information also can turn to the book “Heart Disease in Women” (Jaypee Medical, 2015) for a wealth of information on the causes of chest pain and heart disease. This book explains why so many women have died before getting medical help and how that is changing.

Many women have symptoms of heart disease that are called “atypical” (translation: unlike men), so they may not realize what they have. They may dismiss chest pain or other symptoms as a passing annoyance when in fact they are risking heart attack or related problems. In past years, even doctors may not have recognized symptoms such as jaw or shoulder pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea and fatigue as the signs of serious heart risk or even heart attack.

“Heart Disease in Women” takes a comprehensive look at the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of the leading cause of death in women worldwide. The chapters are written by heart specialists, detailed enough to provide guidance to medical professionals, but also clear enough to appeal to the general public.

Included are discussions of the myths, misunderstandings and facts about heart disease in women. Although it is widely viewed as a “man’s disease,” heart disease in fact kills more U.S. women than men.

In women, symptoms of heart disease may differ from the classic pattern often seen in men, according to the authors. Only 28 percent of women coming to the hospital emergency department experience the classic left-sided, pressure-like, radiating chest pain, compared with 55 percent of men.

Women often describe feeling short of breath or having abdominal pain, shoulder or arm pain, fatigue and nausea before or during a heart attack. They also are more likely to experience neck and jaw pain. Given that these symptoms can be vague or caused by other problems, doctors may look for other tip-offs of heart attack like a racing heart beat with high blood pressure, the authors said. If a heart attack is suspected, tests including an electrocardiogram (are done and treatment is begun, if appropriate.

For women who have already seen a doctor, “Heart Disease in Women” delves into treatments they may get to prevent the progression of heart disease.

The book also has chapters on the role of mental stress and burnout in heart disease. Studies have found that, in people under age 50, job stress and burnout are linked to a higher risk of heart disease in women than in men. In older women and men, that difference disappears.

There are also chapters on the impact of pregnancy and menopause on cardiovascular function, including a section on menopausal hormone therapy.

Library resources

You will find these books and many more on the shelves of Stanford Health Library. Electronic books are also available in our collection, accessed through the library website at healthlibrary.stanford.edu/resources/ebooks.html. Using the login and password available on the main screen, click the blue “EBSCO Host” button and enter the login and password.

The main branch of Stanford Health Library is located at Hoover Pavilion, 211 Quarry Road Suite 201, Palo Alto. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. Other locations include Stanford Cancer Center in Palo Alto, the Ravenswood Family Health Center in East Palo Alto and Stanford Cancer Center South Bay in San Jose.

Donna Alvarado is health library specialist at Stanford Health Library. For more information, call 725-8400 or visit healthlibrary.stanford.edu.

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