Heart Attack Signs in Women Look Very Different From Those in Men

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

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lived... livedove13

It is important to know that 'female' symptoms can also occur in men.  My husband had a total of  four heart attacks before the one that took him, and never had the chest pain or arm pain. He felt it in his jaw and throat, along with the nausea. The first two he didn't even realize he'd had one. It was only after being in the hospital for an unrelated issue that we found out he had damage to his heart due to the previous attacks. Please, ladies and gentleman...don't think you can wait  if you're having these symptoms...go get checked out. Don't lay down, stay upright...and take four aspirin immediately, then get to an ER!!I wasn't aware of the four aspirin thing until after his fatal attack.I lost my incredibly wonderful husband to this disease. I wouldn't wish that on anyone.


Sue Good

Also a person having BACK pain! I have known of a few friends that had a increased back pain complaint and they were dead within 24 hrs from a massive heart attack.One friend died in ER because they were not thinking it was their heart!

heydo... heydooney

This hits home for me. My mom had a heart attack eight days before my oldest son was born. Nobody in the ER really thought it was her heart but they went ahead and treated her for MI just in case, and that is what saved her life.

masastan masastan

What are we supposed to think when we suffer from pain/discomfort daily in our necks, back, and arms and have chronic asthma, so shortness of breath is common as well? The last time I was checked, my heart was healthy, but I suffer from neck problems that can't be surgically corrected and I don't have insurance, much less insurance that would cover weekly visits to the chiropractor, and my lack of regular adjustments has certainly begun to affect my arms and back. So for the women out there like me, what do WE do?

Melin... Melinda32

I'm 34 and it took me 36 hrs to hop on a bus and go to the hospital where they realized I was having a heart attack. I thought I had a really bad cough. An ambulance ride later and a 5 day stay in the hospital I can say it was one of the scariest times in my life. I didn't have any of the chest grabbing pains, it was more just general discomfort in my chest area with a cough and some nausea.

nonmember avatar susan

I wanted to question about the back pain.I have been having this pain every once in a while-more frequently now-if i do something-it can be anything like climbing the stairs and then sitting down i feel this intense thumping in my back that seems to go to the beat of my heart. sometimes its in between my shoulders and others in my lower back. they also seem to be getting more painful. can anyone relate or describe thier back pain?

nonmember avatar FM

I'm 27 & been having back pain in between my shoulders or up under one of the shoulder blades to the middle of my back. I don't know if I have had a heart attack or am currently having one. I had pain just a little while ago in my back.

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