Heart Attacks and Women
Heart disease kills 1 out of 4 women
in the U.S., according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
Heart attacks and their aftermath tend
to be more deadly in women. More women than men die within a year of having a heart attack.
This may happen because women are generally older than men when they suffer heart attacks.
Women also tend to think their symptoms are not those of a heart attack and they don’t seek
immediate care. Further, women don’t respond as well as men to the treatments usually
prescribed during or after a heart attack.
For many women, a heart attack may
feel like a strange discomfort in the back or some other sign that is easy to ignore
instead of crushing chest pain.
When women do go to the hospital,
healthcare providers may miss the diagnosis of heart attack because the symptoms are not
clear. Without a definite diagnosis, a woman may be sent home thinking that her symptoms
don’t mean anything serious.
Studies confirm that heart disease may
differ in women in ways that healthcare providers may not recognize. Heart disease in many
women doesn’t occur from obvious blockages in arteries as it does in men.
Instead, for women, plaque often
spreads evenly along the artery wall or in the smaller arteries. This is called
microvascular syndrome. Some experts suggest that changes in hormones connected to aging or
inflammation may explain why women’s smaller blood vessels are affected. These areas don’t
show up on an angiogram, the standard imaging test that measures blood flow in the big
In women with microvascular
syndrome, blood flow to the heart falls dangerously low. But women don’t often feel the
“elephant-on-the-chest” pain that takes place when large arteries shut down. Instead,
they may have subtle symptoms. They may feel pressure or squeezing or shortness of
breath. Symptoms may even pop up elsewhere in the body, such as the jaw. This symptom of
jaw pain can also appear in men having a heart attack. Many women feel more tired than
usual or dizzy or lightheaded. Many have pain in their stomach and think they have
indigestion or heartburn.
Many women with this disease may
continue to have symptoms and become sicker. They may be at an increased risk for heart
attack within 5 years.
The stage for heart disease is set
before menopause by factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, extra weight
(especially around the waist), high blood sugar, and smoking. All of these factors play
a part in plaque buildup.
Women are more likely to have
“nonclassic” heart attack symptoms than men. Still, healthcare providers note,
unexplained jaw, shoulder, back, or arm pain can also signal a man’s heart attack even
when the classic crushing chest pain is absent.
These are the most common warning
signals for heart attack:
Pain or discomfort in the
center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes
Chest discomfort with
Pain that spreads from the
chest to the arm, neck, or jaw
Shortness of breath,
tiredness, or upset stomach. These are particularly common in women.
If you are at risk for heart
disease and have any of these symptoms, call 911, right away. Time is a key factor in a heart
attack because the longer the blockage remains untreated, the more heart muscle will
die. Also, medicines that break down blockage in the arteries must be given within the
first few hours.
Check your blood pressure
Experts recommend that you have
your blood pressure checked any time you see your see a healthcare provider, including
visits to an OB/GYN provider.
High blood pressure is one of a
group of symptoms called metabolic syndrome that also includes high cholesterol, high
triglycerides (another type of blood fat), increased waist circumference, insulin
resistance, and obesity.
Cholesterol levels in women
Before menopause, women tend to
have high levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol. This gives some protection to their
arteries. After menopause, HDL levels go down. Women have an increased risk for heart
disease and heart attacks after menopause.
Any woman with microvascular
disease, metabolic syndrome, or other heart disease risk factors needs treatment.
This often means taking medicine.
But with mildly elevated numbers, lifestyle changes such as regular exercise and losing
weight may help. Talk with your healthcare provider about your target LDL (“bad”)
cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and triglycerides levels.
For women with high cholesterol,
high blood pressure, or diabetes, taking medicine is key to help prevent heart disease.
Exercise and diet are still important, but they are secondary. Many women will need to
make healthy lifestyle changes and take medicines to keep their risk factors under
Know your risk factors for heart disease
Preventing or controlling heart
disease may mean making changes in the way you live. A healthy heart requires a personal
action plan. But where do you start? A complete health checkup is a sensible first step,
especially if you have many risk factors. Your healthcare provider can tell if you have
cardiovascular disease or its risk factors. If so, they can help you with a practical
treatment plan. Even if you don’t have any risk factors now, you can discuss ways to
lessen your chances of developing them.
Risk factors for cardiovascular disease that are specific to women
- Being post-menopause
- Past hysterectomy
- History of using or current use of birth control pills
- Pregnancy and the high-risk complications of pregnancy. These
include diabetes, pre-eclampsia, and eclampsia.
Risk factors for developing cardiovascular disease that both men and
women can have in common include:
- Personal history of atherosclerosis, including coronary
artery disease, ischemic stroke, and peripheral arterial disease
- Age over 55
- Male relative (father or brother) under the age 55 or female
relative (mother or sister) under the age of 65 with coronary heart disease
- High blood pressure
- High levels of LDL cholesterol or low levels of HDL
- Type 1 or 2 diabetes
- Chronic kidney disease
- History of smoking or current smoker or tobacco user
- Sedentary lifestyle
- High-fat diet
- High-stress life