“I’m only 23. I don’t need to worry about my heart. I’m young.” We all fall victim to the arrogance of youth. We feel invincible and strong and too young to worry about “old people” concerns such as heart disease. However, heart disease is the number one killer of women of all ages, not just older women. Women in their twenties are not only laying the foundation for their future heart health, they may also be at significant risk of heart attack without knowing it. Here are three things young women should avoid to protect their hearts:
Combining Birth Control with Other Risk Factors
Hormonal birth control medications such as the pill, implants, or ring can increase blood pressure, thicken the blood, and decrease the natural estrogen protection younger women enjoy. Heart disease risk for women on birth control medications is similar to postmenopausal women. This increased risk is usually considered acceptable when balancing the need to prevent pregnancy. However, combining the increased risk with other risk factors can be very dangerous. Smoking triples heart disease risk, which is why women on the pill are strongly advised not to smoke. Controlling blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar is very important while taking birth control medication. In addition, women should discuss their family history of heart disease before starting birth control medication. Being smart about reproductive and heart health is important at every age.
The popularity of energy drinks has grown quickly, especially in the under-30 crowd. While caffeine is a safe stimulant in moderation, high levels of caffeine can trigger abnormal heart rhythms, which can lead to cardiac arrest. Trendy cocktails combining alcohol with energy drinks can be particularly dangerous. These cocktails allow you to easily overindulge in caffeine because a single energy drink can contain nearly twice the daily limit, and alcohol inhibits the body’s ability to process caffeine. Being conscious of your daily intake of caffeine and limiting it to no more than 500 mg (about 3 to 5 cups of coffee) will protect your heart.
Even young women in their 20s have heart attacks. Knowing the signs can mean the difference between permanent damage and a full recovery. Women’s heart attack symptoms are often subtle and hard to diagnose. However, we all know what is normal for our bodies. Any abnormal pain or pressure in the torso should not be ignored. Most women who have had heart attacks say they knew something was very wrong. I initially thought my heart attack, at age 35, was indigestion. However, the pressure and pain moved quickly from heartburn to something more, and I knew I was in trouble. Women can have a heart attack without any chest pain; in fact, many women only experience flu-like symptoms. Women’s heart attack symptoms can be very subtle and build over time, contrary to the sudden crushing chest pain depicted in the movies. Women should never ignore the following symptoms:
- Unusual lingering pain, fullness, or pressure in the chest, torso, neck, jaw, or back. Some women describe heart attack symptoms as their bra feeling two sizes too small.
- Unusual stomach or digestive pain or discomfort, especially when accompanied by nausea or vomiting. Often unexplained vomiting is the key to a heart attack diagnosis.
- Cold sweat, dizziness, or shortness of breath. Any unusual symptom can be a sign that something is wrong.
If any one of these symptoms stops you from normal activity it is time to call 911. It is not normal to have to sit down to catch your breath, lie down to feel less dizzy, or stop working because of pain or pressure. Don’t miss the subtle signs. While the disparity in diagnosis and treatment of women’s heart disease has improved, symptoms of a heart attack are far more likely to be dismissed in women. We have to be advocates for ourselves. When I recently went to the hospital with an abnormal heart rhythm, one doctor dismissed my symptoms as “your emotions getting the best of you.” Several hospital staff told me, “you are too young to be here.” Both comments indicate we still have work to do in educating healthcare providers about women and heart disease.
What Should You Do?
Demand tests to rule out a heart attack. Don’t leave until you are sure your heart is safe. Stand up for yourself and protect your heart. Typically, a healthy diet and good exercise habits set us up for a healthy heart. Even young women, however, need to take their heart health seriously, understand their risk, and manage their lifestyles to ensure a long and healthy life.