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Do women experience different heart attack symptons than Men?

By Anonymous December 16, 2008 - 2:57pm
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I was wondering if women experience heart attack symptoms differently than men? Also is there a certain age when a women should have her heart checked or should she wait until she has problems?

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Anon, this is truly a great question. I saw an episode of Oprah a couple of years ago that interviewed women who had had heart attacks, and few if any of them had the "traditional" symptoms that we think of -- the debilitating or crushing chest tightness or pain we hear of most often.

One in particular had seen a show on women's heart attacks, had terrible upper back pain, feared she was having one, went to the emergency room and was told she was having a panic attack. When she nearly forced them to do an EKG, they found that she was correct. So in addition to knowing that our symptoms are different, we also need to be aware that not all doctors may be as aware either.

In researching this question for you, I was also surprised to learn that women can have symptoms they notice as far as a month before their heart attacks. From one article about the National Institutes of Health study on Women's Early Warning signs:

"Among the 515 women studied, 95-percent said they knew their symptoms were new or different a month or more before experiencing their heart attack, or Acute Myocardial Infarction (AMI). The symptoms most commonly reported were unusual fatigue (70.6-percent), sleep disturbance (47.8-percent), and shortness of breath (42.1-percent)."

Wait, you say, I am always fatigued, and I never sleep well. Note that the paragraph says "unusual" and "new or different." Part of this comes down to you knowing what is normal -- and what is definitely not normal -- for you, and trusting your intuition about it.

Here's that article:


It is also surprising to me that the men's symptoms are more publicized, but that more women die of heart attacks than men do each year(though they tend to have their heart attacks later in life than men).

Here's one list of classic symptoms in men vs. those in women:

Classic Symptoms in Men

Squeezing chest pain or pressure
Shortness of breath
Tightness in chest
Pain spreading to shoulders, neck or arm
Feeling of heartburn or indigestion with or without nausea and vomiting
Sudden dizziness or brief loss of consciousness

Symptoms More Likely in Women

Indigestion or gas-like pain
Dizziness, nausea or vomiting
Unexplained weakness, fatigue
Discomfort/pain between shoulder blades
Recurring chest discomfort
Sense of impending doom

That's from this article, which also offers a dozen tips on how to stay on top of your heart health, especially if you have a family history of heart disease:


And here's a piece from Oprah.com that compares not only symptoms, but also the size of arteries, how our emotions and social behavior affect our prognosis, and how much longer we wait before going to the hospital:


Anon, can I ask if you have had symptoms? Is there something more specific we can research for you?

December 18, 2008 - 9:27am

Yes! I'm so glad you asked this question. Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death in women and it is the most preventable cause of death.

Women actually DO have different heart attack symptoms than men, but the men's symptoms are the ones that are most heavily publicized.

The biggest gender difference:
Women are more likely to experience nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, back or jaw pain and anxiety as symptoms that indicate a heart attack.

From the American Heart Association (AHA):
"Most heart attacks start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. Often people affected aren't sure what's wrong and wait too long before getting help. Here are signs that can mean a heart attack is happening:

* Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.
* Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
* Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
* Other signs may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness"

In fact, your question is very timely! There was a study published last week in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association that found:
1) Women are twice as likely as men to die if hospitalized for a type of heart attack known as ST-elevation myocardial infarction (STEMI).
2) Women are also less likely to receive appropriate and timely treatment for heart attack.

The Heart Truth Campaign is another great resource for women:

December 16, 2008 - 3:59pm
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