heart attack signsThe leading cause of death in women is not cancer or stroke. It is not injury or diabetes or accident. It is heart disease. In 2009 alone, 24 percent of female deaths were due to heart disease and yet, even now, so few women are informed about the signs of heart disease and heart attack in women and how they differ from the signs in men.

We have all seen the classic signs of heart attack in men -- the radiating pain down the arm, the chest pain -- but that is not always how women present.

According to Cardiologist Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, the author of Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum's Heart Book: Every Woman's Guide to a Heart Healthy Life, women have much greater danger from heart attacks, largely because they don't believe they are having one.

"Heart disease in women is often a diffuse process that affects the whole artery, versus a man, where there are usually discrete locations affected," says Dr. Steinbaum. "This sometimes makes it more challenging to diagnose. Women tend to go to the doctor later than men do as they often are not sure that the symptoms they are feeling are coming from their hearts. I frequently hear, 'I thought it was just in my head.'" 

This leads to major issues because once women are finally diagnosed, they are often far sicker. I speak from personal experience here, too. My mother-in-law recently died from a heart attack that she had no idea was a heart attack. She had nausea and stomach pains and thought she could wait to see the doctor until Monday.

She couldn't. The information in here could stop someone else from making that same fatal mistake. The Stir spoke with Dr. Steinbaum and Dr. Douglas Harrington, CEO of Aviir, a company that helps to assess the risk of cardiovascular disorders. According to Dr. Harrington, these are the 3 major signs of heart attack in women (and men, too):

  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
  • Nausea, cold sweats, lightheadedness.

For women, the shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and pain heart attack signsin the back or in the jaw are far more common than they are for men. This is important to note because none of these are symptoms we would traditionally associate with a heart attack, but they can be deadly if not treated immediately. 

The fact is, 26 percent of women age 45 or older die within a year of a first time heart attack compared to 19 percent of men. Though this is due in part to the fact that women tend to have heart attacks at more advanced ages than men, but it's still significant. Women can't just ignore these symptoms.

"A truly regrettable fact is that a lot of physicians and health care providers simply don’t have the knowledge or awareness themselves to educate or encourage women into heart healthy behavior," says Dr. Harrington. "Traditional health interventions such as initial patient visit education and periodic reminders are not efficient at correcting this. What is needed is a multifaceted approach, with a very personal touch, that includes interactivity and feedback."

It's not something we consider as women. We tend to worry about breast cancer and the big name illnesses. But we need to pay more attention as it's more prevalent than we think and it's also more deadly.

Knowing the signs is the first line of defense. If you think you are having a heart attack, don't be afraid to dial 9-1-1.

Did you know these symptoms?


Image via Kate Ter Haar /Flickr