Carrie Fisher’s Death Shines Spotlight on Women’s Heart Health

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The sudden and shocking death of Carrie Fisher on Tuesday has put the topic of heart disease back center stage in women’s health. The death of the 60-year-old Star Wars icon came just four days after Fisher suffered a heart attack during a flight from London to Los Angeles.

Credit: Riccardo Ghilardi, Carrie Fisher 2013, CC BY-SA 3.0

“Heart disease is the number one killer of women and is more deadly than all forms of cancer combined,” said Dr. Jennifer Mieres, professor of cardiology and population health at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine in Hempstead, New York.

While the stats on how many women’s lives are cut short by cancer are sobering — four out of 10 women who die between the ages of 45 and 64 die of cancer — the amount of women living with cardiovascular disease is just as staggering. Forty-three million women are currently living with the disease, more than one in three women.

According the American Heart Association, a woman dies from stroke, heart attack or sudden cardiac arrest every minute. A heart attack is a blockage which stops the flow of blood to the heart, while sudden cardiac arrest is when the heart’s electrical system stops working and doesn’t pump blood as it should.

Fisher’s mother, Debbie Reynolds, 84, died the day after her daughter passed. Apparently the stress over her daughter’s death was “too much,” Reynolds’ son, Todd Fisher said, although the official cause of death was still to be determined.

Recognizing Female Heart Attack Symptoms

While some women can experience the same heart attack symptoms as men, most women are plagued with nagging ailments that they might mistake for something else.

Carrie Fisher speaking at the 2012 San Diego Comic-Con International in San Diego, California. Image/Caption Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

“Women tend to have more atypical symptoms,” said Dr. Jay Stone, a cardiologist at Community Medical Center in Toms River, New Jersey. “A burning pain, shortness of breath or weakness, fluctuating in the chest or palpitations — it’s not the classic textbook that men tend to have.”

Other heart attack symptoms in women can include feeling discomfort or pain in the neck, jaw, shoulder or right arm. Being unusually tired, dizzy, lightheaded or nauseated are also signs, as well as back pain, vomiting and excessive sweating.

Dr. Claire Boccia Liang, director of women’s heart programs at Gagnon Cardiovascular Institute in Morristown, New Jersey, says if symptoms become worse when your heart works harder — such as when you’re running or walking fast, dancing or exerting in other ways — that’s a tipoff to suspect heart disease.

“Jaw pain that only relents with rest but gets worse with exercise is definitely a red flag,” Liang added.

Tracking the Right Numbers

There are two types of heart attack risk factors, those that can be changed and those that cannot. The factors you can modify in your life to keep your heart healthy include not smoking, avoiding high cholesterol levels and keeping a healthy body weight.

Minimizing stress is also key. Emotional stress can manifest itself into hormonal responses in the body, and increased amounts of stress hormones can raise blood pressure and heart rate.

The American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign encourages women — especially those with a family history of heart disease — to track certain numbers. From blood pressure and cholesterol to blood sugar and BMI, knowing these key numbers can be a lifesaver. For example, the ideal blood pressure for most adults is 120/80 mmHg, according to the AHA’s guide.

The association recommends scheduling a talk with your healthcare provider to go over your numbers.

Ronke Idowu Reeves
Ronke Idowu Reeves is a writer and journalist who hails from Brooklyn, NY. Her news and entertainment stories have appeared on WABC-TV-New York, Fox News Channel, VH1, BET.com plus in Sundance Film Festival’s Sundance Daily Insider and People Magazine.
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