Heart Attacks in Women: Different Symptoms, Different Outcomes

Knowing Symptoms of a Heart Attack Can Help Save a Woman's Life

By Denise Mann
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Elizabeth Klodas, MD, FACC

Feb 21, 2012 -- Heart disease kills more women every year than any other health condition.

However, a new study suggests that more work is needed to help women and their doctors recognize heart attack symptoms, since women are less likely than men to show up at the hospital with chest pain.

And younger women (those under age 55) who do show up without chest pain during a heart attack are more likely to die, compared to their male counterparts.

These findings appear in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Exactly why this occurs is not fully understood. "Young women may not be recognizing that they are having a heart attack because they are not supposed to have them," says researcher John G. Canto, MD. He is a cardiologist at the Watson Clinic and Lakeland Regional Medical Center in Lakeland, Fla.

Doctors may not recognize the signs in time either. As a result, there may be delays in lifesaving treatments.

The new study included data on more than 1 million people. Of these, 42.1% were female. Women were older than men when they had heart attacks, 74 vs. 67, respectively.

Overall, nearly 70% of men said they felt chest pain when having a heart attack, compared to 58% of women. Many of the differences between men and women lessened with advancing age.

Knowledge Is Power

Nieca Goldberg, MD is the medical director of the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women's Health at New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City. She says that knowing the symptoms of a heart attack can save a woman's life.

What does a heart attack feel like for a woman? "They may feel like they have run a marathon, but they haven't made a move, or they may feel pressure in their chest that feels like an elephant is sitting on it," Goldberg says.

Women having a heart attack may also experience other symptoms such as:

Women need to know their risks and take steps to lower them in order to help prevent life-threatening heart attacks.

Risk factors for heart disease include:

Being overweight or obese, being inactive, and having a poor diet doesn't help, either.

Suzanne Steinbaum, DO, director of women and heart disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, agrees: "It is so important to know your risk factors and symptoms."

"They don't always include classic crushing chest pain," she says. "The sooner we get treatment, the less likely there [will be] a lot of heart damage."

When in doubt, call your doctor or 911, she says.

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SOURCES: John G. Canto, MD, cardiologist, Watson Clinic and Lakeland Regional Medical Center, Lakeland, Fla.Canto, J.G. Journal of the American Medical Association, study received ahead of print.Nieca Goldberg, MD, medical director, Joan H. Tisch Center for Women's Health and the Women's Heart Program, New York University Langone Medical Center, New York City.Suzanne Steinbaum, DO, director, women and heart disease, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York.

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