Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States and claims the lives of more than 310,000 women each year (compared to more than 380,000 men). One of the more dangerous forms of heart disease is the heart attack — which, on average, affects men for the first time at age 65 and women at age 72.
If you’re thinking that both genders follow the Hollywood version of a heart attack in which you clutch your chest and collapse, think again. While, yes, this can happen, women can have less “classic” signs of a heart attack.
To help you better identify a heart attack in women, Dr. Satjit Bhusri and the team here at Upper East Side Cardiology pulled together four of the more common, and sometimes subtle, signs of a problem
The gender difference
We don’t need to tell you that heart attacks are very serious, so our goal here is to underscore the point that the dramatic Hollywood collapse isn’t always how heart attacks unfurl, especially among women.
Women can experience a dramatic chest-clutching event, but they can also develop symptoms that are more subtle and may not seem like they’re directly related to the heart.
Good examples of this are:
1. Chest pain, or not
One of the harder-to-ignore side effects of a heart attack is chest pain, but this symptom can manifest a little differently in women.
Women often feel a pressure or squeezing in the middle of their chests that can come and go. This pressure or feeling of fullness may not necessarily qualify as pain, but as a discomfort.
2. Pain in other areas of the body
Women can feel pain in other areas of their bodies during a heart attack, such as in:
- One or both arms
- The upper back
- The neck and jaw (usually on the left side)
- The stomach
This pain can range from stabbing to dull, so it’s important to notice any strange sensations that aren’t caused by something direct, such as trauma.
3. Stomach upset
Women feel stomach upset more often than men when they’re having a heart attack. This stomach upset can feel like acid reflux or it can be quite strong and include nausea and vomiting.
4. Shortness of breath
During a heart attack, women develop shortness of breath or difficulty breathing more often than men. Shortness of breath can occur with or without chest discomfort.
If you recognize any combination or the symptoms we describe above, it’s simply best to err on the side of caution and get help immediately. At best, you can get prompt treatment for a potentially life-threatening event. Or you may discover you have another condition, such as acid reflux, but the peace of mind is well worth your time.
If you have more questions about heart attacks in women or about women’s heart health in general, please contact our New York City office on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to schedule an appointment. You can also call (212) 752-3464.