Hollywood movies have in many ways shaped our image of a typical heart
attack victim—the overweight middle-aged man who smokes, falling to the ground while gripping his chest. The real-life picture includes a much wider spectrum of the population, including women who don’t always have those telltale signs. In fact, heart disease and stroke are the cause of 1 in 3 deaths among women each year—more than all cancers combined. While a startling statistic, only 56 percent of women actually identify cardiovascular disease as the greatest health problem facing them today.
While women are more apt to seek health care than males for a variety of reasons, women tend to chalk up heart disease symptoms to less life-threatening conditions such as acid reflux, the flu or normal aging. This laissez-faire mindset often means women wait longer than men to go to an emergency room when having a heart attack.
Many women who have had heart attacks report feeling “flu-ish” or sick to their stomach, never experiencing the chest-crushing pain that we often hear about. Instead they may have a subtle ache in their left arm, their jaw, or in their chest going through to the back.
“Our bodies depend on how well our heart is working, so if it’s at risk of disease, we need to listen closely to the warning signs or clues when we’re headed for heart trouble,” said Wendy Johnson, MD, Cardiologist at South Shore Cardiology. “Recognizing these signs can often save our own lives and the lives of loved ones.”
While chest pain is always the red flag symptom that comes to mind when one thinks of a heart attack, nearly 70% of deaths from heart attacks in women occur among those who had no history of chest pain at all. The good news—despite subtlety, many women do experience warning signs and symptoms that if recognized early, can help save your life. Here are five warning signs women of all ages should never ignore. Keep in mind that often these symptoms can occur weeks or even months leading up to a heart attack.
- Extreme fatigue. Nearly half of women experiencing a heart attack report fatigue that comes on suddenly and has no apparent cause. This isn't just lack of sleep kind of tired; it is extremefatigue that doesn’t go away as it would with the flu. "Many women dismiss this, assuming it's nothing and that they will feel better, but in reality it could be a sign of your heart struggling to deliver necessary oxygen to your body," Dr. Johnson said.
- Nausea, vomiting, and upset stomach. Women are twice as likely as men to experience nausea, vomiting, or indigestion-like symptoms, such as heartburn, while having a heart attack. Sadly, unless they're also having chest pain, many women have been known to write it off as something they ate.
- Upper body pain. A frequent symptom of heart attack in women includes radiating pain in the neck, back, jaw, teeth, arms (typically the left) and shoulder blades.
- Shortness of breath. Although men may also have this symptom, women are more likely to have difficulty breathing that comes on suddenly in the absence of exertion—usually without concurrent chest pain.
- Cold “clammy” sweats. Be alert if you suddenly break out in a cold sweat for no apparent reason (and you know it’s not a hot flash).
While there may be huge overlaps between men's and women's symptoms when identifying a heart attack, women should be mindful of these subtle but dangerous warning signs that are unique to them. "Regardless of what the symptom is, if it's something new and it's not going away, it's better to be safe than sorry," Dr. Johnson said.
Remember, you’re never too young or too healthy to have a heart attack, so it’s imperative if you think you may be having a heart attack, call 911 immediately and make sure to follow the operator’s instructions.
If you think you or a loved one is at high risk for heart disease, talk to your doctor about making an appointment with a cardiologist. Visit southshorehealth.org/heartmonth to learn more about several FREE community programs South Shore Health System is offering during Heart Month aimed at education to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease while empowering you to make heart-healthy choices.