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Women and heart disease: Know the signs 

Women and heart disease: Know the signs

We all know that chest pain is a possible sign of a heart attack. 

But if you are a woman, you need to be alert for other signs – which sometimes can be confused as signals for other problems – such as shortness of breath, nausea, back pain, jaw pain, dizziness, and even fatigue. Don't ignore these symptoms. 

In fact, 95% of women who survived a heart attack noticed something was not right in the month before the attack. The most common complaint was that they felt tired for no reason, according to a survey by the American Heart Association. 

"Sometimes women dismiss heart attack symptoms as signs of anxiety, the flu, heartburn, or the wear-and-tear of everyday life," said Dr. Rhian Davies, a WellSpan cardiologist. "That's why it's important to listen to your body when something does not feel right and immediately seek help or talk to your physician about it." 

A heart attack occurs when blood flow that brings oxygen to the heart is severely reduced or cut off completely. This happens because the arteries that supply the heart with blood can slowly narrow from a buildup of fat, cholesterol, and other substances, called plaque. 

Heart disease is the top killer of women in the United States, causing about 1 in every 5 female deaths and felling 314,186 women in 2020, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. 

Not only can heart attacks feel differently for women than they do for men, they also can be caused by different problems and can have different and more deadly results. That's why a careful diagnosis is vital. 

Anxiety or heart disease? 

Heart disease can be missed in women with anxiety, according to a recent study published in the American Heart Association journal "Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes." 

Anxiety disorders are more prevalent among women. Those disorders cause symptoms similar to a heart attack, such as chest pain and shortness of breath, possibly masking heart disease, the researchers said, noting further study is needed. 

"The study shows the need for a careful diagnosis in women, especially those with anxiety," Davies said. "It's important to test and identify the cause of chest pain, so women can get the treatment they need and at a minimum rule out the heart as the cause." 

How heart attacks are different for women 

  • Smoking, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, high blood sugar, obesity, and stress raise the risk of a heart attack more in women than in men. 
  • Women are more likely than men to have heart attacks that are not caused by coronary artery disease. They are more prone to blood clots that form on smaller blockages and a condition called spontaneous coronary artery dissection. 
  • Women also have more health problems after having a heart attack than men do. Women between ages 45 and 65 who have a heart attack are more likely than their male counterparts to die within a year of the attack, according to federal government statistics. Women older than 65 are more likely than their male counterparts to die within a few weeks of the attack. 

Healthy steps 

Anyone wanting to lower heart attack risk should schedule an appointment with their health care provider to learn their risk for heart disease. 

Keep track of your numbers (blood pressure, blood cholesterol, blood sugar, and weight). Maintain healthy habits: a nutritious diet, regular exercise, no smoking, and no more than one drink a day. Manage your stress and seek help if you need it. 

To learn more about WellSpan's game-changing heart care, go here.