Most Latinas don't go around thinking they're at risk of a heart attack: Just ask Nilda Rivera, 50, a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent. Then the unthinkable happened to her last year.
“[Doctors] realized that yes, I was in fact having a heart attack at that moment," she said. Rivera would later undergo triple bypass surgery.
Rivera recalls that she had just returned from a trip to Pennsylvania with her husband; she remembers she had been feeling quite ill all day. She napped most of the afternoon and woke up in the evening with a chest pain so strong she couldn’t stand it anymore.
Once in the emergency room, her blood pressure was sky high. When the EKG results came in, Rivera couldn’t believe she was having a heart attack.
Now, Rivera recognizes that her untreated cholesterol was a main factor. Rivera had been prescribed medication to control her cholesterol almost a decade prior, but had stopped taking it for several years, after feeling better.
“I regret not having taken my cholesterol medication because it would have prevented me from getting to the point where I needed open-heart surgery,” Rivera said. “Had I waited that night [to go the emergency room] I wouldn’t be here, to tell you the truth.”
Rivera is not alone. According to the American Heart Association, Latina women on average experience heart disease earlier than women of other ethnic groups.
The American Heart Association names cholesterol, high blood pressure and obesity as key factors. Most alarmingly, only 1 in 3 Latinas are aware that heart disease is their number one killer; more than any form of cancer.
Dr. Quiñones-García said that women don’t necessarily feel strong chest pain common in men, which is the way heart attacks are usually popularized in television and film. “Women most often experience shortness of breath, pain in their arm, or in their jaw,” the cardiologist explained. Doctors say women should look out for the following:
- Uncomfortable pressure, pain in center of chest that may last a few minutes, go away and come back.
- Pain or discomfort in arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach
- Shortness of breath
- Cold sweat, nausea, vomiting or lightheadedness
Women who think they have heart attack warning signs should call 9-1-1 immediately, and there is more information on the American Heart Association website.
But the good news, said Dr. Quiñones-García, is that that the majority of heart attacks are often preventable with smart lifestyle changes.
Latino dinner tables are traditionally chock full of meals high in carbohydrates and saturated fats, but a diet focused on fruits and vegetables as well as limits on excessive salt intake — paired with regular exercise — can help reduce the risk of heart attack.
Smokers can reduce their chances of heart disease by 50 percent after just one year of quitting. Regular doctor visits are also key for early detection of any problems with cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes; cardiac stress testing can also help. This is especially important if women have a history of heart disease in the family.
Dr. Quiñones-García said that oftentimes language barriers or lack of health insurance become significant obstacles for Latina women. This, she said, should not stop women from seeking medical care ; there are clinics and programs around the country that can treat women for heart disease at lower costs.
Latina women must prioritize their own health, Dr. Quiñones-Garcia said.
“Hispanic women are often more worried about taking care of others and not themselves," said the Latina cardiologist. "It’s important to take care of our own health and seek timely medical attention.”
That’s a message that Nilda Rivera said she can relate to. With her new lease on life, she’s committed to raising awareness about this potential silent killer that can affect Latinas of all ages.
Edgar Zúñiga Jr. is a producer based in Noticias Telemundo's New York bureau for the network's national-evening newscast, "Noticiero Telemundo." Telemundo is a division of NBCUniversal.