Women’s Health, Heart Attacks and the Holidays


A few years ago, a good friend of mine, at 49 years of age, died of a massive heart attack. This vibrant woman, a champion of exercise and good health died after a workout. She had received her B.A. degree a month before with a grade point average of 4.0. It was later learned that her father had died around the same age of a genetic birth defect.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women 65 and older; it is the second-leading cause of death for women 45 to 64 and it is the third leading cause of death for women 25 to 44. In the United States, heart disease kills more women than any other health condition. All women of all ages should aware of heart disease -- its causes and risks -- whether it runs in the family or not. [See updated info below*].

Women's warning signs differ from those for men. The signs for women are not the typical heavy weight on chest, or heart-burn, shortness of breath, pain in arm or cold sweat. These symptoms are less likely to be a women's common first sign. Cause for concern in women are:

  • pain or discomfort in an unusual place such as: the jaw, elbow or even a tooth
  • an unexplained sense of dread, doom or anxiety
  • a feeling that something is not 'right'
  • a sudden weakness or heavy fatigue similar to 'flu symptoms' - more than 70% of women cited this one.
  • shortness of breath
  • nausea
  • indigestion
  • these symptoms may occur as long as a 'month' before an attack

A second attack could be completely different than a first heart attack.

Recent patterns in fatal heart attacks on both men and women, increase during the winter holiday season, especially around Christmas Day and New Year's Day. Research at the University of California, San Diego and Tufts University School of Medicine examined 53 million U.S. death certificates from 1973 to 2001. They discovered an overall increase of 5% more heart-related deaths during the holiday season.

Cold weather can add strain to the heart by constricting blood vessels which can raise a person's blood pressure. And there is more chance for blood clots to form. Cold weather can also mean more shoveling snow and adding increase strains on the heart. But even these reasons don't explain why there are 'spikes' of fatal heart attacks on Christmas Day and New Year's day. According to the Circulation study, “The number of cardiac deaths is higher on Dec. 25 than on any other day of the year, second highest on Dec. 26, and third highest on Jan. 1.” These spikes occur even in balmy, mild weather areas, where there is no snow shoveling.  [Ref: WebMD]

There are several lifestyle changes women can do to reduce your risk of heart disease:

  • Exercise 30 to 60 minutes a day on most days of the week.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Quit or don't start smoking.
  • Eat a diet that's low in saturated fat, cholesterol and salt.
  • Take prescribed medicines; ie, blood medications, blood thinners and aspirin
  • You may consider supplements, such as omega-3 fatty acids or fish oil tablets for high cholesterol
  • Stay at a healthy weight
  • a normal body mass index (BMI) is helpful; a BMI of 25 or higher can be associated with increased risk
  • If overweight, a weight loss of 10-15 pounds can help to decrease risk
  • Take a daily low-dose or baby aspirin.

Leading Causes of Death in Females United States

All Females, All Ages Percent*
1) Heart disease 24.0
2) Cancer 22.2
3) Stroke 6.3
4) Chronic lower respiratory diseases 5.9
5) Alzheimer's disease 4.5
6) Unintentional injuries 3.5
7) Diabetes 2.8
8) Influenza and Pneumonia 2.3
9) Kidney disease 2.0
10) Septicemia 1.6

© Marie Coppola December 2016

References: MayoClinic.com; WebMD; Circulation Study; LHS, Your Health