Women under 50 having more heart attacks, doctors say

Dr. Jyoti Sharma, the medical director of Piedmont Hospital's Women's Heart Program, said the studies validated what she and other cardiologists had sensed.

ATLANTA — Kimberly Calhoun was helping a neighbor last fall when she began feeling bad.

"I started feeling tightness in my chest, and just like a general, yucky feeling," the 49-year-old said.

The active wife and mother of four was having a heart attack.

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According to new studies by the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology, more and more young women are having heart attacks every year.

Dr. Jyoti Sharma, medical director of Piedmont Hospital's Women's Heart Program, said the studies validated what she and other cardiologists had sensed.

"We're seeing younger and younger patients with heart attacks," said Sharma.

Sharma says the kind of heart attack Calhoun had is more common in women.

"A lot of my patients tell me their heart attacks felt like acid reflux -- jaw pain, neck pain, back pain, arm pain," said Sharma. "A lot of women tell me they just felt really fatigued, really nauseous, a general sense of not feeling well."

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Sharma said that in addition to the usual suspects -- high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking and obesity -- women under 50 were having more heart attacks for many reasons, including some tied to gender specific risk factors.

"If a woman has pregnancy-induced hypertension or pre-eclampsia or eclampsia, those women can be at increased risk for the next 20 years after they have that baby," Sharma explained.

The studies also found that while the heart attack risk for young women went up by about 2% every year, the risk for young black and Latino women was even higher.

"Stress is a major factor," said Dr. Ayanna Buckner, the Health Equity Committee chair for the American Heart Association.

Buckner said that in addition to stress, in communities of color, sometimes lack of access to fresh food, doctors and safe places to exercise can lead to higher risk for heart attacks.

She said that removing barriers to healthy living was something her committee was working to change.

"Heart health is more than just about one person’s individual health. We’ve got to really take care of communities," said Buckner.

Calhoun knows how much she had to lose. She told Channel 2's Lori Wilson she was grateful that she decided to go to the emergency room.

"We asked Dr. Sharma what would have happened if we hadn’t come in, and she was very honest and said, 'I’m just really glad you came in. It was really important for you to come in,'" Calhoun said.

Sharma emphasized the importance of paying attention to your symptoms.

"The one thing that I tell my patients is that you know your body the best," she said. "If you don't feel good or something just doesn't feel right, you need to listen to your body."