Holiday heart attack

The No. 1 killer of women goes into overdrive this time of the year.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Published December 14, 2007 9:48PM (EST)

Broadsheet public service announcement: Our readers already well know that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women. It turns out that December and January are its deadliest months of the year. Yet, the well-recognized symptoms of a heart attack, such as acute pain, tightness, burning and a dull ache in the chest, actually describe men's typical complaints, not women's.

"Nausea, shoulder pain and exhaustion can be the only signs a female experiences during an attack," says Dr. Karla Kurrelmeyer, a cardiologist who specializes in women's heart disease at the Methodist DeBakey Heart Center in Houston, in a statement. In the middle of the holiday rush of cooking, wrapping, traveling, eating and imbibing, those symptoms might be mistaken for evidence of too much merrymaking rather than cardiac distress.

Yet, delaying a trip to the emergency room, because you -- or your mother or grandmother -- doesn't recognize those symptoms can be fatal. "Heart disease tends to come later in women than in men, on average 10 years after menopause. Women are more likely to die from their heart attacks because women tend to delay getting help," explains Kurrelmeyer. "Most people know to get to an emergency room immediately when they've identified that they're having a heart attack. However, research shows that women go to the hospital on average one full hour later than men do after experiencing an attack. Most benefits of medical treatment occur in the first six hours after an attack, so delayed medical treatment reduces chances of full recovery."

Bottom line: Don't delay. As Kurrelmeyer puts it: "Even if you are cooking a holiday meal, if you feel symptoms of a heart attack, go to the emergency room immediately." That last statement seems almost laughably obvious: "Pry the spatula from Grandma's hand, and get her to a cardiologist. We love her even more than her baked yams!" Yet, I can easily imagine many women I know, in the middle of putting together a holiday feast, brushing off nausea, shoulder pain or fatigue, not recognizing the seriousness of the symptoms while putting family traditions ahead of their own health.

Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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