In Women, Heart Attacks Don’t Look Like Heart Attacks
Author: Catherine Dao, M.D.
For women in the United States, heart disease is the leading cause of death
across all ages and races. More than cancer. More than stroke. More than
accidents. In fact, nearly 1 in 3 women will succumb to the disease –
that’s almost one death per minute.
Why is this so high? While the prevalence of risk factors, such as obesity,
high blood pressure and high cholesterol, undoubtedly contribute to this
sobering statistic, so does the simple fact that many of the symptoms
that we typically associate with heart attack are based on how it presents
in men. For many women, a heart attack just doesn’t seem like a
So, what, exactly, does a heart attack look like in woman and can it be
Heart Attack Symptoms in Women
Many women don’t experience the crushing chest pain commonly associated
with heart attack. More commonly, it’s felt as a pressure or discomfort
in the chest that may not even be severe enough to cause alarm. In fact,
some women may not report feeling chest pain at all. To complicate things
further, many of the symptoms that are typical of heart attack in women
So, what should you be looking for? Any combination of the following symptoms:
- Pressure or tightness in the chest
- Shortness of breath
- Discomfort in the neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back or abdomen
- Nausea or vomiting
- Dizzy- or lightheadedness
See? Like I said, a lot of these symptoms are
really common. Unfortunately, because these symptoms are so common, a lot of
women downplay symptoms or don’t seek medical attention until heart
damage has already been done – if they seek it at all.
Know Your Risks
While some risk factors are common to heart disease in general, others
play more significant role in women. It’s also important to note
that heart disease can affect women at any age, particularly if risk factors
are present or if they have a family history of heart disease. In addition
to high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity, here are some risk
factors that are specific to or increase risk within women:
Diabetes – Adults with diabetes are
2-4 times more likely to die from heart disease, with women on the higher end of this statistic.
Mental Health & Stress – While stress is a well-known factor
in heart disease, mental health conditions like depression and anxiety also
affect heart health due to the impact that they have on one’s ability to lead a healthy
lifestyle. Learn more about
mental health and
Smoking – Smoking increases a woman’s risk for heart disease
more than it does among men.
Menopause – Lowered levels of estrogen increases the risk of coronary
microvascular disease (buildup or damage within smaller blood vessels),
which may also account for the chest discomfort rather than pain experienced
Pregnancy – Complications women may experience during pregnancy,
such as diabetes or high blood pressure, increase their risk for developing
these conditions after pregnancy. Diabetes and blood pressure well-known
heart disease risk factors.
Reduce Your Risk
While some things, like menopause or family history, can’t be helped,
other risk factors can be mitigated or eliminated by leading a healthy
lifestyle. Things you can do to reduce your risk for heart disease include:
- Get 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Quit smoking.
- Eat a diet rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and lean meats.
- Avoid saturated or trans fats, sugars and salts.
Even with lifestyle modifications, heart disease and heart attacks may
Talk to your doctor about what else can be done to reduce or manage your risk factors. More,
importantly, pay attention to your body. If something doesn’t feel
quite right, seek medical attention immediately. When your life is on
the line, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
If you’d like to learn more about the heart and vascular program
at Washington Hospital,
visit the hospital website.
Posted January, 2019