These Heart Attack Symptoms Are More Common If You're a Woman, Doctors Say
Knowing these typical warning signs could end up saving your life.
Despite popular belief, heart attacks affect both men and women nearly equally. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 24.4 percent of all male deaths and 22.3 percent of all female deaths in 2015 were caused by heart disease. But what can be different for each of the sexes are the early warning signs you might experience. And according to doctors, there are a few heart attack symptoms that are more common in women than in men. Read on to see which red flags you need to be aware of.
Women commonly experience shortness of breath, dizziness, and upper back pain before a heart attack.
Heart attacks can present themselves in various ways, especially as discomfort in the chest that can come in waves. But medical experts point out that women are more likely to experience different symptoms that often go unnoticed due to a lack of awareness.
"Although men and women can experience chest pressure that feels like an elephant sitting across the chest, women can experience a heart attack without chest pressure," Nieca Goldberg, MD, medical director for the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women's Health at NYU's Langone Medical Center, told the American Heart Association (AHA). "Instead, they may experience shortness of breath, pressure or pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen, dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting, upper back pressure, or extreme fatigue."
According to the AHA, other common early symptoms of heart attacks in women include nausea or vomiting and jaw pain.
Some women mistake the signs of a heart attack for other illnesses.
Even though some women can feel a heart attack coming on, Goldberg says that many often assume the symptoms result from having the flu or the aging process. In many cases, some simply can't believe they're actually having a medical emergency.
And while they may seem more subtle than chest pain or pressure, Goldberg says it's still important to be aware of what your body is telling you. She explains something as simple as feeling short of breath, "as though you ran a marathon, but you haven't made a move," can be easy to overlook in some cases. Other women experiencing a heart attack describe upper back pressure that "feels like squeezing or a rope being tied around them."
But besides being aware that you may be having a heart attack, it's just as vital to seek out medical attention as soon as possible, too. "Many women I see take an aspirin if they think they are having a heart attack and never call 911," Goldberg said. "But if they think about taking an aspirin for their heart attack, they should also call 911."
Studies show that women often wait longer to seek help in the event of a heart attack.
Unfortunately, research shows that women experiencing a heart attack are more likely to wait to seek out help than men. In a 2018 study on the topic, researchers concluded that this might be "due to the myth that heart attacks usually occur in men and because pain in the chest and left arm are the best-known symptoms," while many remain unaware of the more subtle symptoms that could be a serious red flag.
But changes in medical practice are improving the situation and making it more likely early symptoms will be spotted. "There are more women in medicine now than ever before, and that's certainly played a big role," Rigved Tadwalkar, MD, a cardiologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California, told Yahoo Life. "We've also conducted a lot more research that's involved women. As a result, we've learned more and have more awareness now that these differences exist."
There are basic steps you can take to prevent heart disease.
If you're looking to lower your risk of developing cardiovascular disease or suffering a heart attack, there are steps you can take. First, Goldberg recommends making an appointment with your doctor to learn more about your personal risk for heart disease. She also suggests quitting smoking, which can reduce your risk of coronary heart disease by as much as 50 percent.
Establishing a consistent exercise program is also essential: Goldberg points out that even walking for 30 minutes a day can lower the chances you'll suffer a heart attack or stroke. And if necessary, modify your diet to include healthier foods and snacks.