Feature Archive

Women and Heart Disease

Signs of Heart Attack

WebMD Feature

Four years ago Nancy Loving had never heard the phrase "women and heart disease," despite having done public relations work for a number of health campaigns. That changed the day she woke up at 4 a.m. feeling light-headed and clammy. She might have passed it off as a bout of the flu if it hadn't been for the tremendous pain in her upper back. Thankfully she read the pain as a warning sign and had her teenage daughter drive her to the emergency room.

When Loving arrived at the hospital, the doctor realized she was having a heart attack and immediately administered a blood clot-busting drug. At 48 she'd had no previous symptoms of heart disease, but all the warning signs were there -- she smoked, was overweight, got little exercise, and had a stressful job and a family history of heart attacks. And at the hospital she found out her cholesterol was at 313, well above the healthy range.

"You would think I would have had red sirens," says Loving, now president of the National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease. "I figured out I was basically a walking risk factor."

No doctor had ever spoken to Loving about her high risk for heart disease. And unfortunately that's not surprising, since the disease is largely considered a man's problem. In reality, heart disease is the No. 1 killer of American women, striking one in three at age 65 or older. But women and their doctors commonly don't suspect the disease and are unprepared for an attack.