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Go Red for Women Day 2019: Know your heart disease symptoms and risk factors

How to identify heart disease risk factors

Mika Leah has always lived a healthy lifestyle, but eight years ago, the young mother's life quickly changed when she had serious heart trouble.

"I was a cycle instructor, I was an athlete. I really didn't think it could happen to me," she told CBS News.

The first sign that something was wrong? It became harder to exercise and she had some chest pains. 

"I was breathless. I couldn't catch my breath. And then I threw up," Leah remembers.

It turned out at the age of just 33, she had a 98 percent blockage in her main artery and needed three stents. She had been experiencing symptoms for a year, but doctors blamed stress even though she had a family history of heart disease.

Sadly, such instances are becoming more common.

"For women less than 55 years old there has actually been an increase in the incidence of heart disease. We are seeing risk factors likes high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes increasing the risk in this population that is otherwise really healthy," said Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, a cardiologist at Mount Sinai Hospital.

On this National Wear Red Day, the American Heart Association wants to get the word out about heart health risk for women.

Heart disease claims the lives of 1 in 3 American women, killing more than 400,000 each year — more than the deaths from cancer, accidents, and diabetes in women combined.

What's more, 80 percent of these cases may be prevented through education and lifestyle changes, the AHA says.

Symptoms of heart disease in women

Symptoms can be different for women than men, and they don't always resemble the sudden, dramatic chest pain you might expect.

"For women, there are several different things that heart disease can present as. It can certainly be a feeling of indigestion: chest pressure, burning, squeezing, tightness," CBS News medical contributor Dr. Tara Narula, a cardiologist and spokesperson for the American Heart Association, told "CBS This Morning."

Other symptoms can include: 

  • shortness of breath
  • jaw pain
  • nausea 
  • vomiting
  • back pain
  • arm pain
  • extreme fatigue
  • light headedness

"There's a whole array of symptoms and it's important to recognize them and act on them," Narula said.

Know your risk factors

Experts say it's also critical to know your risk factors.

"Whatever your to-do list is today — take my kids to soccer, go to the office — let's move up to the top of the list: know my risk of cardiovascular disease and go talk to my doctor about it," Narula said.

Your doctor can help you identify your risk factors and numbers, such as cholesterol and blood pressure levels, body mass index, and blood sugar levels. Then you can take steps to address them.

Raising awareness of women's heart attack symptoms

"The American Heart Association has what they call Life's Simple 7, seven things you can do to really turn around and reverse your risk," Narula said. These steps include losing weight, eating a healthy diet, exercising more, and quitting tobacco.

Steinbaum notes that pregnancy can also shed light on a woman's risk.

"A woman's entire life is really what increases her risk so we can go back to pregnancy and see preeclampsia or high blood pressure, or gestational diabetes or even high sugars," she said.

Leah, now 41, works with the American Heart Association to educate women about these risks. She has needed additional procedures and stents to keep her arteries open and continues to eat right, work out and manage her stress.

"I think as women, we have that voice in our heads, but we don't listen to it," she said.