Health & Medicine

Women can experience a heart attack differently than men

Dr. Gretchen Wells
Dr. Gretchen Wells

When people hear the words "heart attack," they think most frequently of chest pains. For women, however, the symptoms of a heart attack can sometimes be different.

Mortality rates for heart attack in women are higher than for men primarily because many women downplay their symptoms and/or don't recognize them as symptoms of heart attack until it's too late.

Like men, women can experience chest pain during a heart attack. But women are more likely to have back or jaw pain instead of (or in addition to) chest pain. Other symptoms include:

▪  Shortness of breath (with or without chest discomfort)

▪  Nausea or vomiting

▪  Lightheadedness

▪  Breaking out in a cold sweat

▪  Sense of impending doom

If you have these symptoms, take them seriously. Don't tell yourself, "It's just the flu," or "I'm so busy, I'll check it out later." Seeking medical intervention early always increases the chances of a successful outcome. For patients who have had previous heart issues, this is critically important.

While progress has been made regarding women's heart health, there is still room to grow. In addition to knowing symptoms, it is also important to reduce your risk of heart attack, including:

1. Be active for at least 30 minutes five days a week. You don't need to join a gym: a brisk walk will suffice. In fact, 30 minutes of active household chores, such as vacuuming or mowing the lawn, can be effective.

2. Maintain a healthy diet that includes fresh produce, low sodium, and lean meats. A good rule of thumb is to spend more time around the perimeter of a grocery store (usually where the fresher, less processed foods are kept) than down the middle aisles (where foods tend to be highly processed and full of sugar, fat, and/or sodium).

3. Quit smoking and limit exposure to tobacco smoke.

4. Know the risk factors that predispose you to heart disease. High blood pressure, diabetes and obesity increase the risk of heart attack. Additionally, black and Hispanic women are more likely to have a heart attack.

5. Reduce stress. Research into the "type A personality" has been predictive of heart attacks in men. We’re learning more about optimism and positivity in women and how that affects health.

6. Know your family health history. If heart disease runs in your family, your doctor can help you tailor a plan to lower your risk.

7. If you are a woman aged 65 or older, ask your doctor whether you should be taking a daily aspirin for prevention.

Women invest so much of their time taking care of others. Use Heart Month 2016 as the excuse to start investing time in your own health.

Dr. Gretchen Wells is director of the Women’s Heart Health program for the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine at the University of Kentucky