Question: I have heard that heart attack symptoms are different in men and women. Why is that? What can I do as a woman to advocate for my own health?
Answer: Heart attacks are the No. 1 killer of women. Statistically there are six heart attack deaths for every breast cancer death reported. Because women have smaller arteries, heart attacks (caused by blockages of these arteries) are particularly life-threatening.
An awareness that women’s cardiac symptoms are different than men’s is important. The classic symptoms for men are what you see on TV-- chest pressure, and heaviness or tightness that can go down the left arm and up into the neck. Often this pain comes on with exertion and is relieved with rest. There may be some sweating. Women may experience some sweating, some nausea or hot flashes that feel like menopausal symptoms. If the physician is not accustomed to look for these gender-specific signs, they may miss the diagnosis of heart disease in women all together.
For 50 percent of women, there will be no warning at all. The first symptom will be the heart attack itself. That is because the plaque build-up in the coronary artery, which leads to pain and other symptoms, causes only half of all heart attacks. Other women will have symptoms, but will ignore the warning their body is giving them and wait for them to “go away.”
Key risk factors for heart disease include family history, high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking and high cholesterol. Cholesterol gives the plaque in your arteries a jello-like consistency that is more likely to tear away from the artery wall and form blockages. Through diet, exercise and medication you can lower your overall blood cholesterol level and change the make-up of the plaque that already exists in your body.
If you feel like your age and lifestyle put you at a higher than average risk for heart disease, talk to your doctor about having a stress test. Through understanding your own personal risk you are best able to advocate for yourself, and also make heart-healthy changes in your life.