Most of the women have at least one risk factor for heart disease which may show up some time in their lives. Not to scare you, but heart diseases are more deadly for women than men. This is because women tend to ignore the symptoms of heart diseases or may have to wait longer, and they end up dying by the time they arrive at the hospital.
As shown in the movies, the symptom is not merely a man clutching his painful chest and falling to the ground. In reality, about 50% of the women do not experience chest pain. Moreover, the heart disease symptoms are little different in women from those in men. Symptoms in women occur most often during sleep or when they are at rest.
Luckily, women can take measures to protect themselves from the risk of heart diseases by understanding their unique symptoms. Learn the symptoms and don’t ignore them!
The most prominent symptom of heart attack is a discomfort or pressure or pain in the chest which is ‘truly uncomfortable’. It may feel like a tightened chest, fullness or squeezing sensation. But in women, it is not a prominent symptom. In nearly 50% of the women, a heart attack occurs without a chest pain. Chest pain can occur anywhere in the chest, not just on the left or right side. It can last for more than a few minutes, or can come back repeatedly in the form of episodes. However, the severity may vary particularly in women. Get help if the pain does not subside within a few minutes.
Shortness of breath
If you have trouble breathing without any apparent reason, it can be a sign of heart disease. This is especially true, if you have other symptoms along with breathing difficulty. The extent to which you feel the difficulty in breathing can be as if you have run a marathon, although you didn’t actually move at all.
Some women may experience a severe abdominal pain, as if a heavy object is placed on their stomach. Most of the women think stomach pain is a sign of flu or acid reflux or stomach ulcer, but the fact is they can be the symptoms of the life-threatening condition, i.e. the heart disease. So taking an aspirin tablet may not serve the purpose. You should report this non-typical or unexplained pain to your doctor and get evaluated immediately.
Upper back pressure
Few women complain of having a squeezing pain in their upper back as if a rope is tied around them.
The other symptoms which seem to be unrelated to heart disease are more likely in women than in men and include:
- Nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and unusual fatigue. Some women who have heart attacks experience extreme tiredness even while resting. They find it very difficult to carry out simple activities such as walking from one room to the other.
- Discomfort in neck, jaw, shoulder, abdomen or upper back. It is tough for women with heart attack to identify where exactly is the pain occurring.
- Pain in the right arm can occur gradually or suddenly and can intensify with time.
- Break into a cold sweat which appears to be stress related and not related to perspiration from heat or exercise. Get checked if this is not how you typically sweat for no reason.
These symptoms can be less likely over the chest pain associated with heart attack. If you have chest pain along with any of these symptoms, immediately call up a doctor.
Risk factors for heart diseases in women
In addition to the traditional risk factors such as high cholesterol, blood pressure, and obesity, there are other risk factors which have a bigger role for heart diseases in women over men. So, learning them can be of much help to be alert, when you have the above-mentioned symptoms. You can make changes to some of them, if not all. Taking an early action can reduce the risk later.
- Age (55 or above for women)
- Diabetes and pre-diabetes
- Lack of physical activity
- Overweight and obesity
- Mental stress and depression
- Hypertension and diabetes during pregnancy
- Family history of heart disease
Changes in the levels of the estrogen as women reach menopause or after menopause also contributes to their increased risk. The blood vessel walls make it more likely for the clot formation leading to obstruction. Also, the levels of good cholesterol decreases, while bad cholesterol increases, all of which contribute to their increased risk.
What to do if you have a sign of heart attack?
- Get immediate help even if your symptoms are not that bad as they can put your life at stake! Do not feel silly to discuss any minor issue even if it is wrong in context to heart disease.
- Call for an ambulance or have someone to drive you to the emergency unit. Do not drive yourself as you can suddenly collapse on your way and this can lead to accidents.
Most of the women may face the threat of heart disease at some point in life. However, by being aware of the symptoms and risks which are specific to your gender, together with a proper diet and exercise, you can protect yourself from the danger associated with heart diseases. If you notice any of the above symptoms, don’t dismiss them! Don’t feel silly to get checked out right away for heart disease.
- Berg J et al. Symptoms of a first acute myocardial infarction in women and men. Gend Med. 2009 Sep; 6(3):454-62.
- J Obstet Gynecol Neonatal Nurs.DeVon HA et al. A Review of the Literature on Cardiac Symptoms in Older and Younger Women. May-Jun 2016; 45(3): 426-37.