Two hands hold a red heart.
Ladies, take the time to listen to your ticker. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

I’ve frequently talked about the Perfect Storm of midlife and menopause, which are the years leading up to your final period.

During these years, the stage is set for the rest of your life.

Your future health is determined, including the age you are likely to experience a heart attack or stroke, and your risks for diabetes and obesity.

What we do to our bodies during the Perfect Storm time period can either reduce our risk for these health issues and add quality years to our life, or increase our risk of illness and take away quality years.

When your periods start changing and hot flashes and night sweats begin, it’s a sign to get your act together.

Not long ago, I was fortunate to speak to a large crowd about the Perfect Storm, plus a plethora of other topics related to women’s health. During the presentation, a woman from the audience asked the perfect question about two important topics I have discussed in my blogs recently: heart disease and menopause.

She inquired about the symptoms of a heart attack or heart disease in women, and if they could be confused with the symptoms of menopause.

The answer is, yes, there can be some confusion between the two. As a result of this confusion, busy women could easily ignore these signals until it is too late to avoid a heart attack.

I find it helpful to understand the reasons why women experience these symptoms and think about the physiology of heart disease. The discerning factor is that the symptoms of heart disease are progressive and predictable, whereas symptoms like hot flashes during menopause are more unpredictable and aren’t typically progressive.

This knowledge helps you determine the source of your symptoms and whether you need to seek medical attention.

What you need to know

Arteries are blood vessels that deliver oxygen-rich blood to your muscles, brain and organs.

Heart disease occurs when there is a combination of sticky blood vessel walls and fat in the blood. The fat or cholesterol in the blood can stick to the artery in the wall if it is already sticky from inflammation or damaged from cigarette smoke.

Once it starts to stick, plaque builds up and makes the vessel opening smaller and the wall stiff; therefore, not as much oxygen-rich blood is able to get to the muscles (including the heart muscle), brain and other organs.

If you have heart disease, when you move quickly while exercising, climbing stairs, or running to catch up with someone, and you can’t get sufficient blood to your muscles or lungs, the result is weakness, shortness of breath, chest discomfort and sweating.

Many women won’t feel the heart pain in their chest; instead, they will feel referred pain such as shoulder pain, jaw pain or nausea.

As you can see, there is crossover between heart symptoms and menopause symptoms, including sweating and fatigue, but in menopause, these symptoms don’t typically occur following exercise or increased activity.

The bottom line

If there is any question you may be dealing with heart disease, get checked out. If the symptoms are occurring and not letting up, call 911 immediately.

Women are too often concerned about bothering others and wasting their time. As a result, women tend to ignore their symptoms longer than men and are more likely to die of their first heart attack.

Make sure you know your risk factors for heart disease, such as family history, cholesterol level, blood sugar level, waist circumference, body mass index and activity level.

And, if you think you are having symptoms of heart disease, ask your physician for a full evaluation. Your doctor can determine the source of your symptoms and help you develop a plan to improve your health and lower your risk.