The state’s second leading cause of death relates to any issue with the heart muscle.
Heart disease, an umbrella term that can refer to several problems with the heart muscle, remains a top killer of both men and women. It’s the second leading cause of death in Virginia, behind all forms of cancer combined, according to the American Heart Association.
The most common type of heart disease is coronary artery disease, which occurs when the arteries supplying blood to the heart become hardened and narrow with a build-up of plaque, then contributing to a heart attack.
Common symptoms of a heart attack are relatively well-known—chest pain and shortness of breath. But not everybody—especially women—expresses those signs. Women suffering from a heart attack are more likely to report general fatigue or discomfort in the neck and jaw, rather than regular chest pain. That’s historically led to under-diagnosis of women with heart problems, says John Golden, an interventional cardiologist with Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group, although that trend has begun to turn itself around.
“I think there’s a much better understanding of the fact that women’s symptoms may not be as classic as men’s, and it doesn’t mean they’re at lower risk, it just means we have to work a little harder to get to the problem,” he says.
The good news for heart attack victims is that the illness is no longer as deadly as it used to be thanks to advances in medicine, including how quickly doctors respond in the emergency room. Deaths from heart attacks have fallen by 38 percent in the decade between 2003 and 2013, according to the American Heart Association.
The goal is now to treat patients within 90 minutes of when they first begin reporting symptoms.
“The quicker we restore blood supply to the heart, the less damage occurs from the heart attack, and the better people do in terms of survival and in terms of quality of life,” says Golden.