According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the number one killer of women, causing more deaths than all kinds of cancer combined, and increases in risk after menopause. Many women mistakenly think the only symptom of a heart attack is crushing chest pain and, unfortunately, don’t recognize the other, sometimes subtle, symptoms.
“Women may experience the classic symptoms of a heart attack, just as many men do. But females may also experience more varied symptoms, with no accompanying chest pain,” says cardiologist Dr. Daniela Capriles. “This means that a woman who is having a heart attack might blame stomach issues, arthritis or other minor conditions, and not get the immediate help she needs.”
Clear (and confusing) symptoms
When it comes to heart attack symptoms, men and women may experience similar symptoms, such as:
- Discomfort or pain in the center of the chest; many times, it feels like pressure or squeezing that may last a long time, or go away and come back
- Discomfort or pain in the jaw, arms, back, neck, or stomach
- Shortness of breath with or without chest pain
- Cold sweat
- Nausea or vomiting
However in women, a few less obvious symptoms may be heart-related signs that are worth investigating:
- Extreme fatigue, which may occur days or weeks in advance
- Pressure or pain in the lower chest, upper abdomen, or upper back
- Lightheadedness, which may lead to fainting
If you’re a woman, paying attention to the subtle warnings can make a significant difference. Remember that some of these symptoms can occur over hours, days or weeks. If you feel these symptoms, don’t wait more than five minutes to call 911. Even if you have a friend or relative with you, call for medical help rather than drive. If necessary, paramedics can start life-saving treatment on the way to the emergency room. This early care can determine how well you recover.
Be prepared and know your risks
Knowing your risk factors can help you make smart health choices that may prevent a heart attack, and may help you be more prepared in the event that an attack occurs. Some risk factors for both women and men are uncontrollable, including a family history of heart disease, increasing age, race or ethnicity, and a previous heart attack. Other risk factors can be controlled by adopting healthy habits and, when necessary, the use of medication or medical procedures.
Controllable risk factors are smoking (or exposure to secondhand smoke), high blood pressure, high cholesterol, being overweight/obese, unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, diabetes, stress, and drinking too much alcohol. Other risk factors specific to women include being at a younger age at menopause, using hormonal replacement therapy (HRT), and the use of birth control pills, especially in heavy smokers.
Your doctor can help you protect and improve your heart health. Talk with your doctor about the best course of action for you.