Heart disease is leading killer of women; are you at risk?

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

PHOENIX -- In the battle of the sexes, women and men are equal in one area without question -- heart disease. It is the leading cause of death for both, but the symptoms can be different for women, and that means some might not even realize they are at risk.

Donna Whitmore is one such woman. She says with an active lifestyle, including lots of time at the gym, she never imagined she needed to worry about her heart. She had just one complaint.

“I've had swelling of the legs for quite some time," she said.

One day she remembered something.

"My sister had the same thing for years, and she had acute heart failure," she explained.

That realization led Whitmore to ask her doctor about it, which is how she ended up having a series of heart tests with Dr. Suzanne Sorof at Banner Heart Hospital. Sorof says family history is a key indicator of heart disease.

“Anyone in their family with a stroke, heart attack, valve disease, rhythm problem, should be evaluated,” Sorof said, adding that heart disease is something much more common in women than most realize.

"Most women will die of heart disease, eight times more likely than the next cause which will be breast cancer," she said.

Sorof says part of the problem is many women don't recognize the signs of heart problems, often passing them off as simply getting older.

“They are not able to do their normal activity," Sorof said, listing some common symptoms. "They are short of breath with minimal exertion; they are having heaviness in their chest, or jaw or back pain.”

Sorof says women often don't realize they are having a heart attack because it is different than what men may feel.

“So our symptoms might not be crushing chest pain in our chest, which is called the Levine sign,” she explained.

Signs for women can be more subtle, including back pain, nausea, and shortness of breath.

“A lot of other women feel they have this impending sense of doom; something
 is not right," Sorof said. "They are not feeling well and they can't put their finger on it.”

In Whitmore's case, the swelling in her legs was a sign that blood vessels were stiffening, something that could have caused major heart problems if she hadn't remembered her sister.

“If it hadn't been for my family history, I probably wouldn't have bothered with it,” she said.

That, according to Sorof, could have had serious repercussions.

"She might end up having full-on diastolic heart failure.”

With medication, Whitmore's swelling is under control and she can now put all of her heart into enjoying life.

“It is a process, it really is.  But it is a process that is worth going through," she said.

Sorof says if you have any of the symptoms of heart disease and a family history, you should see a cardiologist.