There’s a sneaky culprit of heart attacks among women aged 20 to 40 years old, and it has nothing to do with your cholesterol, weight, or fitness level. (Don’t miss these silent signs of a heart attack, either.)
“In fact, if you looked at a scan of the person’s arteries the day before their heart attack, you might say, ‘They look great,'” Alfred Casale, MD, chair of cardiothoracic surgery at Geisinger Health System in Danville, PA, told Prevention.
The little-known (and rare!) condition is called Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection, or SCAD for short. It could happen anyone, but it’s most common in women—particularly those in their third trimester of pregnancy or shortly after delivery. “We think hormonal changes late in pregnancy that help loosen the tissues in the birth canal for delivery also affect the blood vessels in the heart too in some women,” Casale said.
People with connective tissue disorders or underlying blood vessel abnormalities (such as fibromuscular dysplasia) are also at risk, according to Mayo Clinic. SCAD is typically caused by a tear in the innermost part of an artery, which traps blood between the inner and outer layers and forms a blood clot.
If you have SCAD, you might not know it right away. In fact, the symptoms of a heart attack due to SCAD are no different than those of a normal heart attack, which is caused by a build-up of plaque in the arteries. (Brush up on the signs you’re headed for a heart attack to determine if you’re at risk.) However, doctors can perform tests and artery imaging in order to determine if your heart attack was caused by SCAD rather than plaque. These five tests can predict a heart attack, too.
But don’t worry! Heart attacks for women at such a young age aren’t very common at all. According to the American Heart Association, 35- to 44-year-old white women have a 1 in 5,000 chance of a heart attack, while about 1 in 1,000 African American women are at risk.
Still, “the thing I want women to remember is if something doesn’t feel right in your chest, get it checked out,” Casale said. “Emergency room doctors would much rather send home a patient than miss a heart attack.”
We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. To put your mind at ease, try out these 30 habits that can reduce your risk of a heart attack, starting today.