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The Heart of the Matter: Women’s Risks and Symptoms of Heart Disease

The Heart of the Matter: Women’s Risks and Symptoms of Heart Disease

Heart attack symptoms for women can differ from those for men, and some women tend to ignore those symptoms, says Sangeetha Balakrishnan, MD, a Washington Township Medical Foundation (WTMF) cardiologist. The signs of a heart attack in women often are much more subtle than in men. Women typically don’t experience the classic symptom of crushing chest pain, the most common symptom in men.

As part of Go Red For Women Day (the first Friday in February), women heart attack survivors organize events at which they wear something red to remind other women to pay attention to symptoms that may be signaling an incipient heart attack.

“The symptoms may not persist or aren’t severe so they are ignored. But by ignoring the discomfort or pain they are experiencing, women could be ignoring a potentially fatal heart attack,” Dr. Balakrishnan explains. Such symptoms include:

  • Nausea and/or vomiting/dizziness.
  • Abdominal pain.
  • Acid reflux or heartburn under the sternum.
  • Pain in the shoulder and upper back.
  • Cold, sweaty skin and paleness.
  • Persistent fatigue.
  • Swelling of the ankles or lower legs.

Women are conditioned to work through discomfort and tend to ignore smaller issues. Dr. Balakrishnan notes, “Even if they worry about what they are experiencing, they tend to procrastinate seeing a doctor. They believe they don’t have the time to be checked out and, if it’s a false alarm, they’ve just wasted their time and that of their physician.”

Women need to understand that if they don’t take care of themselves, they won’t be able to take care of others in their lives. They can’t afford not to deal with the discomfort or pain they are experiencing,” she emphasizes.

Dr. Balakrishnan adds, “As the old cliché says, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Your physician will be happy you decided to be checked out rather than waiting too long and ending up in the hospital, or worse.”

Heart attacks can occur in women of all ages but the risks are different at various stages in their lives. Pregnant women can experience excessively high blood pressure from preeclampsia or other causes that can weaken the mother’s heart. Postmenopausal women with low levels of estrogen—or no estrogen at all—have the same risk factors as men, and the risk of heart disease increases in women as they age.

And for all women, the risk of heart disease increases if they are diabetic, have high blood pressure or high cholesterol, don’t exercise, are overweight, smoke, or have a family history of heart disease. While younger women have a lower risk of heart disease, their risk increases to that of men once they have completed menopause.

“While women can’t control some risk factors such as age, menopause and family history, they can make lifestyle choices that reduce their risk of a heart attack.” Dr. Balakrishnan adds. “This includes following a healthy reduced-fat diet, exercising, maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding smoking and limiting the amount of alcoholic beverages consumed. Make sure you monitor your blood pressure and have your cholesterol and blood sugar levels checked at least once a year.

“And the most important of all, pay attention to what your body is telling you. Go get checked out before you have a heart attack. Your doctor will thank you for it—as will your family.”

For more information about the cardiac services at Washington Hospital, visit To learn more about Dr. Balakrishnan, see the Find a Doctor section of