The numbers are staggering: Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in women—responsible for one in four female deaths. Yet, despite increased awareness, only 45 percent of women are aware that heart disease remains their greatest health risk.
“Almost two-thirds of women who die of heart disease show no previous symptoms, and many women still consider themselves to not be at risk for the disease,” explains Katie Hawthorne, MD, Lankenau Heart Institute cardiologist at Lankenau Medical Center, part of Main Line Health. “It is so important for women to recognize the early warning signs of a heart attack so that they can seek timely, potentially life-saving treatment.”
Below, Dr. Hawthorne explores the heart attack symptoms women should recognize.
Chest pain or tightness
Chest pain is commonly associated with heart attacks in both men and women, but don’t assume you need to experience chest pain to have a heart attack.
“Women who don’t experience chest pain may mistakenly believe they aren’t having a heart attack,” explains Dr. Hawthorne. “For women, chest pain doesn’t always present as pain. It can feel more like a tightness or fullness in the center of the chest.”
If you feel any discomfort, play it safe and call for emergency medical attention.
Pain in the arm, back, neck and jaw
While they may not always experience chest pain, a very common symptom for women to experience during heart attack is pain in the arm, back, neck, and jaw. And, for some women, this pain can be alarming and confusing.
“Many women are so accustomed to hearing that heart attack pain occurs in the chest that they don’t recognize pain in these areas as a heart attack when it happens,” says Dr. Hawthorne.
If you experience pain, whether sharp and shooting or dull and gradual, call 911 immediately.
Stomach pain, nausea or vomiting
It’s easy to shrug your upset stomach, nausea, and vomiting off as a case of the flu, heartburn, or food poisoning, but these can also be signs of a heart attack. If you experience these symptoms in conjunction with others like sweating, fatigue, or lightheadedness, call 911 immediately.
There’s no way around it: Women are busy. Between balancing demanding careers, busy social lives, and coordinating the schedules of busy partners and children, it’s easy for sleep to take a backseat. But when extreme fatigue starts to take over, it could be a warning sign for heart attack.
“Women who are having a heart attack often feel worn out by completing the most basic tasks, like walking to the car, or lifting a purse,” says Dr. Hawthorne. “It’s normal for women to be going a-mile-a-minute in their daily lives, but pay attention to your body. If you feel a sudden fatigue and find it difficult to complete these activities, your body is telling you something.”
Both men and women are affected by this common heart attack symptom. But while many heart attack sufferers might expect to feel perspiration akin to just finishing a workout, most women can expect to feel a cold sweat similar to what you might feel during a stressful or exciting situation.
If there’s no other potential reason for you to break out into a sweat—like nerves, hot flashes, or the temperature—take note of other symptoms. It could be a warning sign for heart attack.
Shortness of breath
Every woman wants someone to take her breath away, right? Not a heart attack. While shortness of breath is a common symptom for both men and women, it is often accompanied by lightheadedness, fatigue, and nausea in women. If you feel tired or out of breath without having physically exerted yourself, call your physician immediately.
Know your risk factors
Recent data published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that 26 percent of women find heart disease embarrassing, and assume that a heart disease diagnosis is related solely to their weight. While obesity or overweight can be a risk factor, there's more to consider in assessing heart disease risk. Traditional risk factors like blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, inactivity and smoking are all risk factors, as well as female-specific risks like pre-eclampsia during pregnancy.
At the Lankenau Heart Institute, we know that not all hearts are created equal. Our cardiac experts understand the unique heart health needs of women, and we’re proud to feature a team of 13 dedicated female cardiologists. From prevention and diagnosis to treatment and rehabilitation, when it comes to matters of the heart, a woman’s insight is invaluable.
Women's Heart Initiative is a comprehensive health care program specifically dedicated to education and awareness about women's heart care. The goal is to empower women to Learn, Act, and Live—to help women recognize the warning signs of heart disease and encourage them to have open discussions with their physicians about their heart care. To learn more about the Women's Heart Initiative, call 484.476.3WHI (484.476.3944) to speak to a specialist.