SSM Health Medical Minute: Women and heart disease

The fact is: Heart disease is the number one killer of women, causing 1 in 3 deaths each year. That’s approximately one woman every minute!

Dr. Stephanie White, cardiologists at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital says the warning signs of a heart attack can be very different for women than they are for men. In the United States, 1 in 4 women dies from heart disease. The most common cause of heart disease in both men and women is narrowing or blockage of the coronary arteries, the blood vessels that supply blood to the heart itself. This is called coronary artery disease, and it happens slowly over time.

Nearly two-thirds of the women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease have no previous symptoms.

Symptoms to act on

Men and women can have any of these “classic” heart attack symptoms:
•Uncomfortable pressure, fullness, squeezing or pain in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back.
•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.
•Lightheadedness, fainting, sweating, nausea.
•A feeling of indigestion.

Women may also experience these symptoms:
•Unusual chest pain, stomach or abdominal pain
•Vomiting or dizziness
•Unexplained anxiety, weakness or fatigue
•Palpitations, cold sweat or paleness

What to do if you experience symptoms
If you are experiencing symptoms, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

Lack of awareness of unique symptoms
Women’s heart attack symptoms are often different than men’s, so heart disease isn't always recognized right away.

A study in the journal Circulation shows that compared with men, women have a 50% greater chance of being delayed in an emergency setting. And because heart attack symptoms aren’t always clear cut, research shows women go to the hospital at least a full hour later than men do after experiencing a heart attack. As a result more heart damage can occur and more women than men will die within one year of a first recognized heart attack. Getting treatment quickly is critical for newer, lifesaving medicines and treatments to work.

Heart attack symptoms in women aren’t always obvious or the same as in men. Not all women have chest pain or discomfort. Sometimes, the only symptoms are shortness of breath, nausea, shoulder pain, weakness and fatigue. Or women may just experience a cold sweat and dizziness. However, some women do experience chest pain so it’s important to pay attention to that symptom.

These variations in symptoms are why heart attacks can be difficult to diagnose in women. But if you think you may be having a heart attack, don’t dismiss your instincts. Seek prompt medical attention.

To find out about Women’s Heart Health click here.