Here at BoomerCafé, our focus is on active and healthy lifestyles for baby boomers. That’s why we’re ending the year by sharing this piece that we saw on the website of our friends at It is written by Next Avenue’s senior editor for health and caregiving, Emily Gurnon, and inspired by the sudden deaths this month of three famous boomers, including, most recently, actress Carrie Fisher.

Carrie Fisher. George Michael. Alan Thicke.

The sudden deaths of the three celebrities from heart issues in just this final month of 2016 should remind us that coronary artery disease is the No. 1 killer of both men and women in the U.S. And yet we often don’t pay much attention to the threat it poses.

Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia and held by Harrison Ford in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

That’s especially true for women, says Dr. Sharonne N. Hayes, a cardiologist and founder of the Women’s Health Clinic at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

“Many women, because of the focus on reproductive health, on breast health, on breast cancer, they think that’s their biggest risk, and that is their main focus on health prevention.”

But in fact, heart attacks kill six times as many women each year as breast cancer, according to the Women’s Heart Foundation. The average age for heart attacks in women is the mid-sixties, but heart attacks can occur in women in their twenties and up.

Heart issues are all too common.

Fisher was 60 when she apparently suffered a massive heart attack (or, possibly, heart failure) on a flight from London to Los Angeles on December 23rd. The actress and writer, beloved for her role as Princess Leia in the Star Wars series, died four days later. (Her 84-year-old mother, actress Debbie Reynolds, died the following day, evidently of a stroke.)

George Michael

British pop singer Michael died on Christmas Day. According to his manager, the cause also was heart failure although officially it is still inconclusive. He was just 53.

Thicke, the Canadian actor best known for his role in ABC’s Growing Pains, died December 13th of a ruptured aorta, sources said.

Also this month, it was reported that comedian Garry Shandling, who passed away back in March, died of a blood clot in the heart after calling for emergency help at his Los Angeles home. It is reported that the cause of death announcement was delayed because of toxicology tests and a review of his medical records.

Garry Shandling

In stories about Fisher’s death, media outlets have widely noted that she had a history of illicit drug use, including cocaine. This fueled speculation that the drugs played a key role in her heart attack.

But that’s highly unlikely, says Dr. C. Noel Bairey Merz, medical director of the Women’s Heart Center at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles. “Drugs and alcohol are not risk factors for heart attacks with a few exceptions: young people who are doing a lot of cocaine, or the freebasing; while doing that, they can have a coronary spasm and a heart attack and die,” she says. “That was not Carrie.” (Bairey Merz acknowledges that she has no personal knowledge of Fisher’s health.)

Alan Thicke

The fact that Fisher was a woman makes us less likely to think her death was due to simply heart disease — and Bairey Merz says, that’s unfortunate.

“She had heart disease probably for the traditional reasons that most women die of heart disease. It’s the leading killer of Americans— why are we shocked?”

Forty-seven percent of women surveyed as part of a recent study did not know that heart disease is their gender’s leading cause of death, according to Bairey Merz. And among those who do know, “very few women think that it’s going to get them. Very few women personalize it.”

In fact, Americans’ most feared diseases are cancer and Alzheimer’s, with heart disease lagging far behind, a 2011 survey for the MetLife Foundation revealed.

Even if it doesn’t kill you, heart disease can cause other problems, Bairey Merz says. It’s the leading contributor to disabilities such as Alzheimer’s and other dementias, as well as problems like recurrent hospitalizations and large out-of-pocket expenses.

These are common symptoms of heart attacks:

  • Chest pain, pressure, or squeezing. About two-thirds of men and one-third of women will experience what Bairey Merz calls “the classic Hollywood heart attack,” with pain or discomfort in the chest.
  • Jaw or arm ache/pain. This is more common for women, Bairey Merz says.
  • Upset stomach or heartburn. Bairey Merz says women are more likely to ascribe their symptoms to an upset stomach or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Doctors more often think that stomach symptoms in women indicate a gall bladder problem, she adds. Both women and men may experience nausea and vomiting with a heart attack.
  • Shortness of breath. This symptom is more common in women.
  • Lightheadedness. You may be dizzy or feel as if you are going to pass out.
  • Sweating. You may break out in a cold sweat.

Most people have some symptoms of heart disease in the months leading up to a heart attack, though they may attribute the signs to something else, Mayo cardiologist Hayes says.

One of those is exercise intolerance — which older adults sometimes brush off as simply a byproduct of aging. If you are accustomed to going on walks and find yourself avoiding them, for instance, talk to your doctor.

Hayes says, “The biggest public health message for men and women is: know all the heart attack symptoms and if you have them, then you call 911 — you don’t drive yourself, you don’t ask your spouse to drive you, you don’t call a neighbor,” because all those actions accomplish is delaying the application of oxygen and other potentially life-saving measures that paramedics will immediately do.

Finally, the top risks for heart disease are the following, according to American Heart Association:

  • Smoking
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Being obese or overweight
  • Diabetes, especially if not well-controlled
  • Increasing age
  • Family history of heart disease

Of course, we have no control over some of those factors, like increasing age. But many heart attacks can be prevented by addressing lifestyle factors, experts say.

“We really could do so much better if we could get women to recognize [heart disease risks] and take some action,” Bairey Merz says.

Medical providers need to do more too, she says, in the area of prevention. For example, Ob/Gyn doctors should be testing patients’ blood pressure and urging them to stop smoking, because many women don’t see a general practitioner.

© Twin Cities Public Television – 2016. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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