Feb. 1, 2010 -- Many people assume that if you're in good shape, you aren't at risk for heart disease. But one otherwise healthy woman who survived two heart attacks wants others to know that isn't always the case.
"My doctor told me that if I had ignored my symptoms anymore I would have gone home and probably just never woken up one day," Christine Steiger said.
February is national heart awareness month, and The Heart Truth is an awareness campaign delivering an urgent wake-up call to American women and inspiring them to take action to protect their heart health.
The campaign, which is sponsored by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), created and introduced The Red Dress as the national symbol for women and heart disease awareness in 2002. This is a deeply personal issue for many women, including Christine Steiger.
Steiger, 45, had always been the picture of health, until Nov. 8, 2003 when that changed for the mother of two from Brecksville, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland.
"Four days after my 39th birthday I had a heart attack, which was quite surprising because prior to that I was in the best shape of my life," Steiger said. "I was exercising every day, running five miles a day, I was a lifetime Weight Watchers member, really focused on eating right and eating healthy."
Steiger was on her way to dinner with her husband Jim, 12-year-old son Noah and 9-year-old daughter Lily when something strange occurred.
"I was taking my daughter from the car and setting her down and felt a sharp pain in my left arm, right above my elbow and just honestly thought I had pulled a muscle when I set her down," she said.
But the symptoms didn't go away. In fact, they got worse.
"As moments went on my whole arm felt numb and I got a tingling sensation almost like when you lay on your arm awkward when you're sleeping," she recalled. "But the sensation wasn't subsiding."
When Steiger began to feel light-headed and experienced pressure in her chest, her husband took her to the emergency room where doctors soon discovered that she had suffered a heart attack.
"They put in two stents and determined that I had a 90 to 95 percent blockage and that it was probably had been there for awhile from what they saw in my body," she said. "So in hindsight I realize that I had experienced symptoms and was ignoring [them]."
Steiger became even more dedicated to her healthy lifestyle, which was why she was shocked when she ended up in the hospital again a little over a year ago, in December 2008.
"I had a second heart attack almost five years later," she said. "This time my heart attack presented itself differently. I got a sharp pain between my shoulder blades and then got a pain in my left elbow. "
Steiger had no family history so she never expected she was at risk, but Dr. Nakela Cook, a medical officer at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, says that regardless of age, women need to pay attention to warning signs.
"Heart disease is the number one killer of women and it's important for women to know the risk factors," she said. "Over 60 percent of women 21-39 have at least one risk factor."
Christine takes medication -- Zocor, Plavix and aspirin -- daily and continues to watch her diet and exercise, but her own experience has taught her the value of being vigilant about her health and she urges all women to pay close attention to any signs your body may be giving you.
"And I have a husband, I have two kids, and to lose all that just because I was afraid to go to the doctor and get checked out is just ridiculous."
Women With Heart Problems Suffer Lack of Awareness, Treatment
Steiger is not alone. Cardiologists say that while heart disease is a condition that has traditionally been associated with men, it is a major threat to women as well.
"Women are at risk for heart disease," said Dr. Clyde Yancy, president of the American Heart Association. "No need for further debate; now it's time for us to focus the same or greater attention on the heart health of women as we have for men."
Some doctors note that misconceptions about heart disease and gender extend beyond the general public and into the medical profession -- which has in turn led to a serious gender gap when it comes to understanding and treating heart problems.
"Despite the fact that 15,000 or more young women 55 and younger have a heart attack each year, we know very little about their prognosis and what treatments are most effective," said Dr. Harlan Krumholz, professor of medicine in the section of cardiology at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn. "They represent 4 percent of all heart attacks, and we have precious little evidence about them -- except that their risk is higher than similarly aged men."
"Women are more likely to be under-treated," agreed Dr. Noel Bairey-Merz, medical director and chair of the Women's Health Program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. "Women are more likely to have a second [heart attack] and are more likely to die in the year after a [heart attack] than men, in part due to this."
ABC News Senior Health and Medical Editor Dr. Richard Besser said despite this, there are many ways women can improve their odds of avoiding -- or surviving -- a heart attack.
"You shouldn't smoke, and if you live with a smoker, get them to stop," Besser said on "Good Morning America." "Know what your cholesterol is and take those measures to improve your cholesterol."
He added that women should als do what they can to keep their blood pressure under control and exercise regularly.
"I think it would be a mistake for women to come away from this and say exercising and eating right doesn't help, because clearly those are the most important things you can do for preventing heart disease and so many things in your life," Besser said.
Resources About Women and Heart Disease
Below are a few of the online resources available to women who want to learn more about their heart risk factors and safeguard their heart health.
CLICK HERE to download a PDF of tests you can ask your doctor about.
CLICK HERE for heart-healthy recipes.
CLICK HERE to download a wallet card that you can take to your doctor that includes questions to ask and important information about all your heart health numbers and risk factors.
CLICK HERE for more on risk factors.
CLICK HERE for a risk assessment tool to estimate your 10-year risk of having a heart attack:
CLICK HERE to visit the Heart Truth Web site for much more the national awareness campaign for women about heart disease, and to learn about National Wear Red day on Friday, Feb. 5, 2010.