A heart attack occurs when the blood flow that brings oxygen to the heart is cut off. This happens because the arteries which supply the heart with blood can narrow over time from plaque, a buildup of fat, cholesterol or other substances.
Women are about as likely as men to suffer a heart attack, but with women's symptoms often being more difficult to diagnose, they are more likely to die after their first heart attack. Some people don’t have symptoms at all. “About 25 percent of people that have heart attacks don’t even know it,” says cardiologist Dr. Jeffrey Jones, M.D., FACC of Hagerstown Heart. It is not uncommon for patients and even health care professionals to attribute chest pain in women to non-heart related causes like heartburn, an infection, or a muscle strain.
- Uncomfortable tightness, pressure, or pain in the chest.
- Pain or tingling in one or both arms and pain in the back, stomach, or jaw.
- Shortness of breath.
- Profuse sweating, dizziness, fainting, nausea, indigestion, high anxiety, loss of appetite, or vomiting.
“Half of women will not have chest pain and if they do have chest pain it’s not the classic pressure or gripping, exertional pain that men may get. It’s maybe a sharp pain or nonexertional. It doesn’t radiate in the typical fashion like men to the neck or to the arm. It may radiate to the back, it may radiate to the shoulder, it may not radiate at all,” says Dr. Jones.
Higher risk factors
While men and women share the same risk factors for heart disease such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and obesity, there are other factors that are especially of concern for women.
- Metabolic syndrome is a combination of fat around the abdomen, high blood sugar, high triglycerides, and high blood pressure.
- Mental stress and depression affect the heart and can make it difficult to make healthy decisions and follow appropriate preventative measures.
- Smoking affects the heart more in women.
- In women after menopause, low levels of estrogen pose a threat to develop heart disease in the smaller blood vessels.
- Diabetes can increase the risk of heart problems and is also more common in women.
- Because women generally develop heart disease later in life their chance for death after a heart attack in much greater.
For both men and women it's important to attack the risk factors that you can control. “In adolescence you need to start making healthy choices. You need to start exercising, you need to make sure you’re a healthy weight, and you need to make sure that you’re eating a relatively low saturated fat diet. Try to avoid trans fat and don’t smoke,” says Dr. Jones.
Know your numbers
It’s important to take care of yourself, be proactive, and know the risk factors and symptoms of heart disease that are specific to women. Schedule an appointment with your doctor to find out your personal risk for heart disease. One of the best ways to prevent heart disease is to know your numbers. Blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, and weight can provide insight into your heart health. Also, know your family history and make sure to stay in tune with any changes in your health.
Whether you are healthy, have family history of heart disease, or have already suffered a heart attack you should practice healthy habits. “Even when you’ve had a heart attack you can regress the plaque buildup in the vessel,” says Dr. Jones.
Recognizing the symptoms and seeking personal treatment is the first step in safeguarding your health. Never hesitate to get help if you are experiencing any signs of a heart attack. Call 9-1-1 and get to a hospital as soon as you can.
By: Meg DePanise