Women's not-so-obvious heart attack symptoms

heart neon
© Pablo Guarneros

Although heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the US, many don't recognize the symptoms of a heart attack.

We all know what a heart attack looks like, right? I see a Type A personality businessman clutching his heart, doubling over in pain before collapsing on the floor. But that's only half the story.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States. Even though most people think of heart disease as the exclusive terrain of men, in this matter, women are on equal ground – the CDC notes that around the same number of women and men die each year of heart disease in the U.S.

Additionally, recent research has discovered a staggering increase in the annual incidence of heart attacks among young women (35–54 years old) – meaning amongst women, heart disease is not very selective. Yet even with increased awareness over the past decade, only 54 percent of women know that heart disease is the gender's leading of death.

And here's the kicker: A heart attack for a women doesn't always look (and feel) much like it does for men.

“Although men and women can experience chest pressure that feels like an elephant sitting across the chest, women can experience a heart attack without chest pressure, ” says Nieca Goldberg, M.D., medical director for the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women's Health at NYU’s Langone Medical Center and an American Heart Association volunteer. “Instead they may experience shortness of breath, pressure or pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen, dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting, upper back pressure or extreme fatigue.”

Some experts suggest that women's higher threshold for pain can change the perception of their symptoms – which is compounded by the fact that most women don't consider that they could be having a heart attack in the first place. Many women think their symptoms are courtesy of less life-threatening conditions like acid reflux, the flu or aging.

Dr. John Ryan, director of the Dyspnea Clinic at the University of Utah explains that women, "have the symptoms, but they just tolerate them better or dismiss them as being a heart attack, because many women don't feel that they're predisposed to a heart attack."

The CDC says that while some women have no symptoms (because we are tough, obviously), others "experience angina (dull, heavy to sharp chest pain or discomfort), pain in the neck/jaw/throat or pain in the upper abdomen or back. These may occur during rest, begin during physical activity, or be triggered by mental stress."

They note that women are more likely to describe chest pain that is sharp, burning and more frequently have pain in the neck, jaw, throat, abdomen or back.

The American Heart Association says that if you notice any of the following, call 9-1-1 and get to a hospital right away.

1. Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
2. Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
3. Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
4. Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.

"As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort," notes AHA. "But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain."

So why is this on TreeHugger, you may ask? Avoiding health complications through preventative medicine and healthy living saves lives, expenses, and precious environmental resources. But mainly ... because we love our women readers! (And yes, we love our men too.) And today is International Women's Day, and basically, the world needs us to be healthy.

For more, visit the CDC and American Heart Association.

Women's not-so-obvious heart attack symptoms
Although heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the US, many don't recognize the symptoms of a heart attack.

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