AHA: Women’s heart attack symptoms different from men
We’ve all seen the movie scenes where a man gasps, clutches his chest and falls to the ground. In reality, a heart attack victim could easily be a woman, and the scene may not be that dramatic. Heart disease is the number one killer of women — more than all forms of cancer combined.
“Although men and women can experience chest pressure that feels like an elephant sitting across the chest, women can experience a heart attack without chest pressure,” said Nieca Goldberg, M.D., medical director for the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women's Health at NYU’s Langone Medical Center and an American Heart Association volunteer. “Instead they may experience shortness of breath, pressure or pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen, dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting, upper back pressure or extreme fatigue.”
Even when the signs are subtle, the consequences can be deadly, especially if the victim doesn’t get help right away. Delay can cause permanent heart damage — or death.
‘I thought I had the flu’
Even though heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States, women often chalk up the symptoms to less life-threatening conditions like acid reflux, the flu or normal aging.
“They do this because they are scared and because they put their families first,” Goldberg said. “There are still many women who are shocked that they could be having a heart attack.”
A heart attack strikes someone about every 43 seconds. It occurs when the blood flow that brings oxygen to the heart muscle is severely reduced or cut off completely. This happens because the arteries that supply the heart with blood can slowly narrow from a buildup of fat, cholesterol and other substances (plaque).
Many women think the signs of a heart attack are unmistakable — the image of the elephant comes to mind — but in fact they can be subtler and sometimes confusing.
You could feel short of breath, “as though you ran a marathon, but you haven't made a move,” Goldberg said.
Some women experiencing a heart attack describe upper back pressure that feels like squeezing or a rope being tied around them, Goldberg said. Dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting are other symptoms to look for.
“Many women I see take an aspirin if they think they are having a heart attack and never call 9-1-1,” Goldberg said. “But if they think about taking an aspirin for their heart attack, they should also call 9-1-1.”
Know the symptoms to save a life:
Heart Attack Signs in Women
- Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
- Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
- Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
- Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
- As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.
If you have any of these signs, call 9-1-1 and get to a hospital right away.
Take care of yourself…first.
“Many women put their health on the back burner while they’re busy taking care of everyone else. But it’s not unlike airline instructions to “put your oxygen mask on first, then help your friend.” If you’re in a hospital from a heart attack, you can’t help anyone. You have to help your own heart first,” said Carolyn Torella, AHA Hudson Valley spokesperson, “You’re worth it. Your health is worth the investment of time.”
The good news for women is that heart disease is preventable in 80% of cases.
Goldberg’s top tips:
- Schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider to learn your personal risk for heart disease. You can also learn your risk with our Heart Attack Risk Calculator.
- Quit smoking. Did you know that just one year after you quit, you’ll cut your risk of coronary heart disease by 50%?
- Start an exercise program. Just walking 30 minutes a day can lower your risk for heart attack and stroke.
- Modify your family’s diet if needed. Check out these healthy cooking tips. You’ll learn smart substitutions, healthy snacking ideas and better prep methods. For example, with poultry, use the leaner light meat (breasts) instead of the fattier dark meat (legs and thighs), and be sure to remove the skin.
Learn more at GoRedForWomen.org.
Facts about women & cardiovascular diseases
- Cardiovascular diseases kill nearly 1 in 3 women each year.
- Cardiovascular diseases kill about one woman every 80 seconds and about 80% of cardiovascular diseases may be preventable.
- Heart disease is the number 1 killer of women, taking more lives than all forms of cancer combined.
- More than one in three women is living with some form of cardiovascular disease.
- About 3.6 million stroke survivors alive today are women.
- Less than 20% of women meet the Federal Physical Activity Guidelines.
- Nearly 65% of women age 20 and older are overweight or obese.
- About 45% of women in America age 20 or older have total cholesterol of 200 mg/dl or higher.
- About 30% of women in American have high blood pressure.
- Only 17% of women consider heart disease or stroke to be the greatest health problem facing Americans today.
- African-American women are the least likely of women to consider heart disease or stroke to be the greatest health problem facing Americans today at13%.
- 15% of Hispanic women and 15% of Asian women consider heart disease or stroke to be the greatest health problem facing Americans today.
- 18% of Caucasian women consider heart disease or stroke to be the greatest health problem facing Americans today.