As a woman, I am especially concerned with heart disease. It’s the No. 1 killer of women in the U.S., attributed to 1 in 3 deaths each year.
What’s even more concerning is the added risk of a specific heart attack unlike anything that’s commonly seen. A heart attack that not only affects healthy older women but women in their 30s as well. These heart attacks are caused by spontaneous coronary artery dissection, or SCAD.
A tear in an artery
SCAD occurs when there’s a tear inside an artery of the heart and blood can’t reach heart muscle. This can weaken the muscle, eventually causing it to die, and lead to a heart attack.
SCAD was thought to be very rare, but greater awareness of this condition and more advanced diagnostic techniques suggest it’s actually more prevalent than we previously believed.
Healthy women at risk
Research by the Mayo Clinic has shown that younger, healthy women with an average age of 42, normal blood pressure and few to no risk factors for heart disease are most at risk of SCAD.
Other risk factors include extreme emotional stress or physical exertion and pregnancy. A significant percentage of patients studied have been new mothers who developed SCAD most often in the first weeks after giving birth.
Know the symptoms of a heart attackIt’s important for women to realize that SCAD is poorly understood. In fact, how often it occurs, its exact causes and even the rate of recurrence are unclear. That leaves medical professionals with very few guidelines for patients.
Since there’s no scientifically validated way to reduce the risk of SCAD, the Swedish Heart & Vascular Institute advises that all women know some of the signs of a heart attack:
- Chest discomfort
- Pain in the arm, back or even the jaw
- Cold sweats
- Shortness of breath
Don’t delay treatment
SCAD can lead to sudden death if it isn’t diagnosed and treated right away. Get emergency medical attention immediately if you experience any of these heart attack signs and symptoms.
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine found that even though chest pain was the most common symptom of heart attack, women in general were less likely to experience chest pain than men -- and some women didn’t have any chest pain at all. So even if you aren’t at high risk of heart disease, see your cardiologist or primary care provider immediately if you experience any other telltale symptoms, such as weakness, shortness of breath or rapid heartbeats.
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