A heart attack occurs when there is a disruption in the flow of blood to a person’s heart and this can be life-threatening. For women, it’s important to know all the female-specific symptoms of the condition. Doing this can help them seek medical attention at the soonest possible time which, in turn, may save their life. It’s a fact that women have a lesser likelihood of surviving their first heart attack compared to men. Generally, women who suffer from heart attacks have unusual or even “silent” symptoms which aren’t as easy to spot. Aside from this, the biology of females creates unusual risk factors for the condition. In this article, we’ll learn all about heart attacks among women to keep all the sisters out there well-informed.
Causes and Risk Factors of Heart Attacks in Women
Heart disease has an impact on a person’s cardiovascular system as well as her blood vessels. Therefore, several health issues may result from this and a lot of them are related to the process known as atherosclerosis. This is a condition which occurs when plaque accumulates in the person’s arterial walls. The accumulation then makes the arteries narrower which, in turn, makes it harder for the blood to flow freely. Then if a blood clot starts to form in the artery, this can cause a stroke or a heart attack. Unfortunately, the issue doesn’t end there. In fact, heart disease comes in different forms:
- Congestive heart failure means that the woman’s heart still works but it’s not as efficient as before or it’s not getting sufficient oxygen.
- Arrhythmia means that the woman’s heart is beating irregularly, too slow or even too fast. This can then affect how well her heart functions and whether or not her heart is able to pump sufficient blood to meet her body’s requirements.
- Problems of the heart valves can also occur. This may result in the woman’s heart not opening up sufficiently to allow the proper flow of blood. Also, there are times when the valves of the heart don’t close and so the blood leaks through. Another problem is when the leaflets of the valve bulge into the heart’s upper chamber which causes the blood to flow backward through the leaflets.
Heart attacks in women also come with certain risk factors. It’s also important to be aware of these risk factors so that women can take extra precautions if they have them:
Age. Women ages 55 years and above have an increased risk of getting a heart attack. The reason for this is that their hormones provide them with some form of protection from the disease before they experience menopause.
Family History. A woman is considered to have a family history of heart attacks if she has a female relative who has suffered from a heart attack by the age of 65 or a male relative who has suffered from a heart attack by the age of 55. In such cases, the woman may also have an increased risk of getting a heart attack.
Health Status. There are certain markers such as high levels of cholesterol and high blood pressure which increase the risk of heart attack in females and in males as well.
Medical Conditions. There are also some medical conditions which can be risk factors for this condition. These include:
Diabetes. Women who have diabetes have an increased risk of heart attacks than men who have diabetes.
Mental Stress. Women who suffer from mental stress, as well as depression, also have an increased risk of heart attack because their hearts are more affected. Also, depression makes it more difficult for women to follow and maintain a healthier lifestyle which, in turn, may cause a heart attack.
Cancer. Some drugs used for chemotherapy as well as radiation therapy may also increase the risk of the condition affecting the heart.
Pregnancy. If a woman is pregnant and there are some complications, this may also place her at a higher risk for the heart disease. That’s why it’s important to have regular check-ups while pregnant to make sure that everything is going smoothly.
Lifestyle Choices. A woman’s lifestyle choices may also put her at risk for heart attacks. In particular, if she doesn’t practice healthy lifestyle choices rather, she has habits such as:
Inactivity. For both genders, inactivity is a huge risk factor for heart attacks. Unfortunately, studies have shown that women are more prone to inactivity than men.
Smoking. When a woman smokes, this habit will place her at a greater risk than if a man has this habit.
Menopause. After a woman experiences menopause, she will have lower levels of estrogen which becomes a risk factor for developing heart disease.
Broken Heart Syndrome. This is a common condition among women which is usually caused by stressful situations. It can cause temporary but severe failure of the heart muscles. Usually, the condition is more common in women after they experience menopause.
Common Symptoms of Heart Attacks in Women
We all expect heart attacks to come suddenly and without warning. But according to research, women actually experience the symptoms a few weeks prior to the attack. A study published in 2003 showed that of over 500 women who suffered from a heart attack, about 80% of them had experienced at least one of the symptoms several weeks before they had the attack. The symptoms may be consistent or they may be intermittent. Sometimes, they might also interrupt the woman’s sleep. When a woman experiences the symptoms, she must seek medical help immediately since heart attacks can be fatal. It doesn’t even matter if the symptoms are mild or if they’re severe. Look out for these potential symptoms of a heart attack:
Chest Pains. This is one of the most common symptoms of a heart attack. One may experience chest discomfort or pain which may feel like pressure, tightness, squeezing or aching. However, some women may get a heart attack without experiencing this particular symptom. It may go either way but if one feels any type of chest pain, it’s important to consult with a doctor just in case.
Unusual or Extreme Fatigue. This symptom is usually reported by women in the weeks which lead up to the heart attack. Also, the woman may feel the fatigue right before she has the heart attack. With this kind of fatigue, a woman may feel it even when she performs activities which normally don’t require much strain or exertion.
Weakness. This is another common acute symptom of heart attacks in women. The weakness may come with feeling shaky, dizziness, anxiety, feeling lightheaded or fainting.
Shortness of Breath. When a woman is about to have a heart attack, she may also experience this symptom or even heavy breathing even without exerting any effort. It’s dangerous if it also comes with the other symptoms.
Sweating. If a woman sweats profusely without any cause, this can be another symptom of a heart attack. Also, the woman may feel clammy and cold if she’s about to experience an attack.
Pain in the Upper Body. This symptom is considered as non-specific and can’t be attributed to a specific joint or muscle in the woman’s upper body. She may feel pain in her jaw, neck, upper back or in one of her arms. The pain may start in a particular area then slowly spread to the other parts of her body. But it can also come abruptly in those body parts.
Disturbances in Sleep. When a woman is about to have a heart attack, she may also experience this symptom. Unusual waking or a difficulty falling asleep may be some issues a woman will go through right before the event. Aside from these disturbances, the woman may also feel tired even if she is able to get enough sleep.
Stomach Issues. Finally, a woman may also experience a number of stomach issues when she’s about to have a heart attack. Right before having the attack, some women would feel a pressure or pain in their stomach. Other issues include vomiting, nausea, and indigestion.
Tips About Heart Attacks in Women That May Save Your Life
It may come as a surprise to a lot of people but the hearts of women are different from the hearts of men. That’s why when it comes to heart attacks, it’s best to learn all one can regarding information which is gender-specific. With that in mind, here are some facts and tips for women which may end up saving their lives:
The Risk Factors for Women and Men Vary. While the major risk factors are common for women and men but some of them are more dangerous for women. Also, there are some issues associated with heart problems which only women experience. The best thing for women to do is discuss all these risk factors with their doctor, especially those which are female-specific.
Women Won’t Always Experience Chest Pain When They Have a Heart Attack
Although chest pain is one of the most common symptoms of heart attacks, some women won’t even experience it. Instead, there are other symptoms women should look out for, some of which we’ve already described in the previous section. Later on, we’ll also go through some of the more unusual symptoms women should also look out for which may indicate an oncoming attack.
Women can also experience “widow-maker heart attacks” Because of the name, you’d think that this type of heart attack is only for men. However, there are some cases where women experience these widow-maker heart attacks too. When such attacks occur, it means that there is a blockage in the person’s left descending artery. Since this is the one which supplies the main pumping chamber of the heart, a blockage on it can be fatal. As a matter of fact, the grim name of the condition comes from the fact that the survival rates for those who experience it are very low.
The Heart Health of Women and Men Vary Too. When it comes to the treatment for heart diseases in women, there’s not as much available compared to the treatments for men. This is mainly because, at one point, the medical community didn’t think women can get heart diseases. And this is why a lot of the information that doctors use this day was taken from men.
It’s Actually Possible for Women to Suffer from a Broken Heart. Certain stressful situations have the potential to trigger intense and severe chest pain and this is known as broken heart syndrome. Unfortunately, women are more susceptible to this condition. Although this technically isn’t a heart attack, it can feel like one. In any case, the woman who experiences it must seek medical care immediately.
Important Facts About Heart Attacks Among Women
We’ve all heard the saying, “ignorance is bliss.” But this doesn’t apply to heart disease. In fact, women should get all the information they can about this type of disease as the information may one day save their lives. According to the CDC, only around half of all women are able to recognize heart disease as one of the major killers of women. A possible explanation for this is that a lot of women don’t really know about heart disease and everything that comes with it.
Usually, when people think about heart attack victims, they would have an image in their mind of a middle-aged, overweight man who is gripping his chest as he falls to the floor. Of course, this image is quite possible. However, other types of people may also experience heart attacks, even women. It’s also important to note that heart disease doesn’t just mean heart attacks. Heart disease refers to anything which can go wrong in a person’s heart.
The good news is that heart disease, yes, even heart attacks, can be prevented up to 80% of the time and sometimes all it takes is to make some simple lifestyle changes. These include exercising regularly, getting rid of unhealthy habits, and eating healthy foods. As we’ve mentioned previously, women can also protect themselves by learning all they can about the disease. To help out, here are some important facts:
Heart Disease Actually Kills More Women Than All the Types of Cancers Combined. It’s estimated that about 1 in 4 women dies from heart disease. On the other hand, breast cancer only causes death in about 1 in 30 women. As a matter of fact, more women may die from strokes and other heart diseases than all the types of cancers combined.
Also, heart diseases don’t discriminate. This means that it can affect white women as well as African American women. It’s also the second major cause of death for all the other races including Asian and Hispanic women. The sad thing is, women of all races and ages don’t talk to their doctors about the risks. They only become interested in it when they or someone they love to experience it.
9 out of 10 Women Have at Least One of the Risk Factors for Heart Attacks. There are different risk factors which may lead to heart attacks in women and according to studies, at least 90% of all women have at least one of these factors. Unfortunately, heart disease can affect even those who don’t have any of the risk factors.
Women in Their 20s Should Start Having Routine Screenings. A recent survey revealed that around 60% of women don’t think that heart screenings are recommended until after they reach the age of 30. However, this shouldn’t be the case. Experts recommend that the routine screenings should start when women reach the age of 20. This is because heart problems can start developing when a woman is in her teenage year or in her early 20s. If one doesn’t take any action in order to start the prevention of the disease, it’s only going to become worse.
When women go for their regular checkups, they should also include heart screenings. This means that the doctor will monitor one’s blood pressure, cholesterol levels, glucose levels, and weight. Experts also recommend that women undergo an EKG or an ECG every year if they have several of the risk factors.
When It Comes to Heart Attacks in Women, the Symptoms Are Very Hard to Recognize. Since the symptoms of heart attack and other heart diseases differ between women and men, they’re usually misread. For instance, one of the classic symptoms in men is feeling a pressure or pain on the left side. Sometimes, the pain would radiate into the jaw or down the man’s arm. On the other hand, women have symptoms which are a lot subtler. That’s why it’s important for women to know these symptoms so that if they experience any of them, the woman can seek medical care as soon as possible in order to prevent further damage to her heart.
If a Woman Suffers from a Heart Attack in Public, There’s a Lesser Likelihood of Bystanders Performing Cpr on Them. According to research, women have a lesser likelihood to receive CPR from bystanders when they experience a heart attack in public. Because of this, the odds that a woman would survive such an attack are also lesser if it happens in public. A lot of researchers believe that this is mainly because of the embarrassment people may feel when they have to perform CPR. Remember that this first aid treatment involves pushing on one’s chest and this makes people uncertain on whether they should do this for women even when they have a heart attack in public.
In Order to Deliver Cpr, One Doesn’t Have to Do Mouth-To-Mouth. There’s a type of CPR known as “hands-only CPR” which doesn’t require any mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and it’s quite easy to do. First, check and see if the person, in this case, the woman, is responsive. Usually, those who suffer from heart attacks can’t move or breathe and sometimes, they may even start turning blue. Before doing anything, it’s important to call emergency services such as 911.
After that, one can already start the hands-only compressions. To do this, push fast and hard on the center of the person’s chest at a rate of 120 compressions per minute. It’s as simple as that and it’s just as useful as doing mouth-to-mouth CPR. But even the most athletic women can’t completely eliminate the risk of these conditions.
Just Because a Woman Is Fit, That Doesn’t Mean That She Won’t Suffer from Heart Attacks. One of the most common (and dangerous) myths out there is that women who are fit won’t suffer from heart attacks and other heart diseases. Of course, inactivity and unhealthy eating habits may increase the risk. So even if a woman is thin. fit, and healthy, she should still have herself checked regularly in order to decrease the risk or at least prevent the disease from happening.
Even Women Who Don’t Show Symptoms Are at Risk for Heart Attacks. More than 60% of women who suffer from heart attacks and heart diseases have reported no symptoms in the past. And this may be because of how easy it is to ignore the symptoms as “no big deal.” This is where women should be more aware of their bodies and how they feel. If a woman starts noticing that her routine activities make her more tired or suddenly seem to be more difficult, she should get her heart checked.
Monitoring One’s Hormones Can Be Very Helpful. It’s important for women to monitor their hormones if they want to ensure the health of their hearts. The hormone estrogen, in particular, is very important because it’s considered as cardioprotective. This means that good estrogen levels can protect women against heart diseases such as heart attack. This is also why the risk of heart attacks in women significantly increases after menopause.
The drop in the estrogen levels is genetically managed which means that a woman can actually determine when her risk starts to increase by basing it on when her own mother had undergone menopause. Also, when the thyroid hormones are out-of-whack, this can cause the cholesterol levels to spike which, in turn, may result in heart diseases or damages.
Healthy habits such as exercising regularly, eating healthy foods, getting enough sleep, and more can go a long way if women want to maintain the balance of their hormones. Also, women can talk to their doctors about testing their hormone levels so that they can work together in setting and reaching goals to keep their hearts healthy.
Keep an Eye out for These Uncommon and Barely Noticeable Symptoms Which May Indicate a Heart Attack in Women
Most people associate chest pains with heart attacks and for good reason. It’s also important for women to know the cause of their chest pains if they experience such. It’s worth noting though, that this isn’t the only symptom women may experience when they’re about to have an attack. Women may experience symptoms of a heart attack which aren’t related to chest pains. Because of this, they should be aware of the symptoms so that they know what to look out for. Here are the most common “silent symptoms” women should look out for:
Unusual Weakness or Fatigue. A lot of women these days are very busy with their lives. From taking care of their family, doing the household chores, taking care of their aging parents, working outside of the home, and more, there’s really a lot to deal with. Because of this, most women may feel tired all the time and this is probably normal.
However, if the weakness or fatigue is new or it comes dramatically, then this should be cause for concern. Women need to watch out for certain indications including:
- Feeling worn out after performing her usual exercise routine.
- Feeling a heaviness in the chest, weakness or fatigue even when she isn’t really exerting herself.
- Simple activities such as walking around the house, doing the household chores or even shopping make her unusually weak or tired.
- Although the woman feels really tired, she also experiences sleep disturbances.
Excessive Sweating or a Shortness of Breath. As women grow older, they tend to gain weight gradually or even lose the time or interest to continue exercises. These, in turn, may cause women to experience a shortness of breath frequently. Also, the hot flashes which usually come as women undergo menopause can cause them to sweat excessively. In such cases, these symptoms are still considered as normal. But there are certain situations when the woman experience these symptoms and they may point to a potential heart problem and these include:
- When a woman suddenly experiences the symptoms even without exertion.
- When the breathlessness doesn’t fade away and even worsens after she exerts herself.
- The shortness of breath becomes worse when the woman is lying down and it improves when she sits or props herself up.
- She experiences “stress sweat” along with a cold and clammy feeling even though she isn’t in a stressful situation.
- She experiences these symptoms along with the other common symptoms of heart attacks.
The Pain Felt in the Back, Jaw or Neck. The systems of the body are very complex and they’re also very efficient at sending signals when something is not right. When a woman has a problem with her heart, it would trigger the nerves in the area but sometimes, she would feel the pain in the other parts of her body, specifically the back, jaw or neck.
The pain felt in these areas may be an indication that the woman is suffering from a heart problem. This is especially true if she can’t exactly pinpoint the origin of the pain. Also, if the discomfort or pain starts or becomes worse when the woman exerts herself then suddenly stops when the exertion stops as well. When a woman notices this, she should get her heart checked.
Other Signs to Be Aware Of:
- When a woman feels pain in either of her arms, not just the left one.
- When a woman feels pain in her upper or lower back which begins in her chest.
- When a woman feels a sudden pain which isn’t because of physical exertion or a pain which can wake her up in the middle of the night.
- When a woman feels pain specifically in the lower-left part of her jaw.
If women notice these symptoms, they should have themselves checked immediately. A lot of women who have suffered from heart attacks claim that they had, indeed, noticed these “silent symptoms” several weeks to a month before they had the attack. The sooner a woman seeks medical help, the better her chances are of catching the problem before she actually experiences a full-blown heart attack. When the woman visits her doctor, she should:
- Bring with her a list of all the symptoms she’s experiencing and when they occur.
- Let the doctor know about any family history of heart attacks or other heart diseases.
- Talk to the doctor about any stress she’s feeling or any significant events in her life which may be contributing to the problem.
Usually, the doctor would listen and take note of all the woman’s symptoms. Then, the doctor would check her blood pressure as well as her pulse. Blood tests may follow which will show whether the woman’s heart has any damages or not. The doctor may also use an EKG or ECG to determine whether the electrical activity of the woman’s heart is normal or not. All these steps are necessary for the doctor to be able to identify any heart-related problems. Only then can the doctor take the necessary steps in order to intervene before a potential heart attack.
When Should Women Seek Medical Attention?
Experts recommend that women should start having their hearts checked when they reach the age of 20. As women grow older, these regular checks with the doctor become a necessity. Such tests can help identify any risk factors early on so that the doctor may administer the appropriate treatment. Early intervention helps reduce the risk of experiencing any cardiac events aside from heart attacks.
We’ve already discussed the common as well as the silent symptoms women have to look out for which may indicate a problem with their hearts. In case a woman notices any of these symptoms and feels like they’re unusual, she should consult with her doctor immediately. It’s also important for women to know when they need to call emergency services. Women, even men, in fact, should call emergency services right away if they suspect that they’re having a heart attack. Unfortunately, not all women would do so even if they think they’re already experiencing a cardiac event such as a heart attack.
Emergency treatment is vital as it can save someone’s life. Women who feel the following symptoms should call for an ambulance right away, especially if the symptoms don’t go away for 5 minutes or longer:
- chest discomfort or pain
- the pain felt in the upper parts of the body such as the jaw, neck, shoulder or arms
- breathing difficulties
- extreme fatigue or weakness
- heartburn or indigestion
- nausea or vomiting
- an irregular or a rapid heartbeat
- unexplained anxiety
- excessive sweating
How to Prevent Heart Attacks in Women
A lot of different factors may put women at a risk for heart attacks and other heart diseases. Some factors cannot be controlled but others can. The important thing is to have the proper information about these conditions so that women know what to look out for. Then they will be better equipped in terms of preventing such attacks. Women can make some simple lifestyle changes if they want to prevent heart attacks. These include:
- Not smoking
- Managing the blood sugar levels
- Getting the blood pressure under control
- Lowering the levels of cholesterol
- Finding out about one’s family history
- Staying active
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Eating healthy foods
Also, women may follow these guidelines in order to keep their hearts healthy:
- Visiting their doctors regularly to have their hearts checked
- Taking the necessary steps to manage other medical conditions such as diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and more