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The Tidelands Health Newsroom

Published on January 04, 2017

Carrie Fisher's Death A Reminder That Heart Disease Is Women's No. 1 Killer

Actress Carrie Fisher’s death of cardiac arrest at age 60 last week is a grim reminder that heart disease doesn’t discriminate based on gender.

About 610,000 people die of heart disease in the United States each year, equating to about one in four deaths, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. Although it’s the leading cause of death among both men and women, only about half of women recognize it as their most likely cause of death.

“Women face the same exact risk that men face when it comes to heart disease, said Dr. Mitchell Devlin, a Tidelands Health cardiologist. “Everyone should be cognizant of the risk factors and symptoms.”

The heart disease problem is more acute in South Carolina than other areas of the nation. The death rate for heart disease in the Palmetto State, which has elevated rates of obesity, smoking and other risk factors, is about 7 percent higher than the national average. It’s even higher in Horry and Georgetown counties.

Beyond recognizing the risk of heart disease, it’s important women understand

Heart Attack Risk factors

  • High blood pressure
  • High blood cholesterol
  • Diabetes and prediabetes
  • Smoking
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Being physically inactive
  • Having a family history of early heart disease
  • Having a history of preeclampsia during pregnancy
  • Unhealthy diet
  • Age (55 or older for women)

Source: National Institutes of Health

the signs and symptoms may be different among women than men, Dr. Devlin said. For example, heart disease often occurs later in life among women than men.

“There’s typically a lag compared to men,” Dr. Devlin said. “Women will have a protective effect from estrogen during their younger years, but once they go through menopause that protective effect is eliminated and they catch up to men.”

Women also tend to experience heart attacks differently from men, said Dr. Sherief Khalil, a Tidelands Health cardiologist.

Heart attacks occur when a blocked artery prevents blood from flowing to the heart. Such attacks are often caused by coronary artery disease, a type of heart disease characterized by plaque buildup in the walls of the arteries.

Both genders can experience the classic chest pain and arm numbness of a heart attack, Dr. Khalil said, but women often experience different signs.

“Women don’t necessarily come to us with symptoms exactly like men,” said Dr. Khalil. “Their symptoms are often more subtle.”

For example, women may feel unusually tired, short of breath, dizzy, nauseous or lightheaded, he said. They also may feel like they have indigestion, heartburn or feel pain in their jaw.

Mistakenly attributing symptoms to benign causes is often one of the reasons women tend to seek help later than men, said Dr. J. Ryan Altman, a Tidelands Health cardiologist.

Heart attack signs and/or symptoms can persist for hours, days or weeks. The longer a person goes without treatment, the more heart damage can occur. Heart attacks ultimately can cause sudden cardiac arrest and death.

“Men will typically present with more common symptoms but will present more quickly after the onset of symptoms,” Dr. Altman said. “Women tend to present later in their heart attack.”

One study found that women wait an average of 54 hours to be treated after the onset of symptoms, compared to 16 hours in men.

Anyone experiencing signs or symptoms of a potential heart attack should immediately call 911 rather than take a private vehicle to the hospital, Dr. Altman said. Emergency medical technicians can evaluate a patient in an ambulance and help expedite care upon arrival at the hospital.

People can help prevent heart disease by avoiding tobacco use, maintaining a healthy weight, eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly, Dr. Altman said. They should also work with their physicians to prevent and treat other health conditions, especially high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol.

Drs. Devlin, Khalil and Altman practice at Tidelands Heart and Vascular in Pawleys Island and at Tidelands Health hospitals. Carechex in its 2017 rankings rated Tidelands Georgetown Memorial Hospital in the Top 10 percent of South Carolina hospitals for heart attack treatment.


Tidelands Health is the region’s largest health care provider and MUSC Health affiliate, serving the Carolinas at four hospitals and more than 70 outpatient locations. More than 2,500 employee, physician and volunteer partners work side by side with our communities to transform the health of our region – promoting wellness, preventing illness, encouraging recovery and restoring health.