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Are The Symptoms Of A Heart Attack Really That Different In Women Compared To Men?

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Dr. Malissa Wood explains how heart attack symptoms, risk factors, and treatments are different in women compared to men. Dr. Malissa Wood is the Co-Director of the Corrigan Women's Heart Health Program at the Massachusetts General Hospital Heart Center in Boston, MA.

Dr. Wood:
A man will classically experience heaviness like an elephant sitting on his chest with pain often radiating to the arm. Women, on the other hand, will frequently experience unusual symptoms such as jaw pain, neck pain, back pain, a feeling of indigestion and also, extreme fatigue.

There are two types of risk factors - those you can do something about, and those you can’t. Of those you can do nothing about, but you need to recognize, family history is really at the top of the list. That is when a male first degree relative, such as a father or brother, has had a heart attack before the age of 55, or a female first degree relative, such as a mother or sister, has a heart attack or heart disease before the age of 65. This is a particularly important risk factor in women.

The other risk factors that you really can’t do anything about are age. As we age, a woman’s heart disease risk goes up. The good news is, many of the risk factors are preventable and treatable. These include high blood pressure, smoking, which is the single most preventable cause of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, especially obesity where the woman’s waist circumference is over 35 inches, also the presence of the low good cholesterol or high bad cholesterol, and high triglycerides.

There are differences in the tests that should be used to diagnose heart disease in women. In our program, we choose to use non-invasive tests first – things like echocardiogram or an ultrasound of the heart, or a stress-test to look for evidence of heart disease.

Our team at the Corrigan Women’s Heart Health Program at Mass General Hospital Heart Center includes three physicians who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of heart disease in women. Within our group we also have specialists such as those who specialize in imaging in heart disease in women, prevention in heart disease in women, and even the study, or science, of heart disease in women.

About Dr. Malissa Wood, M.D.:
Dr. Wood's clinical practice is primarily devoted to the diagnosis and treatment of heart disease in women. Dr. Wood currently serves as the Co-Director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Heart Center Corrigan Women's Health Program and is the principle investigator of the Happy Heart Trial, a primary prevention in low income women study designed to improve the cardiovascular health of high risk women.

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