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Warning for women: Heart attack symptoms can be subtle

Heart disease and heart attack are serious health threats for women. Yet many women aren't aware of their risk or of the potential warning signs of a heart attack.

Misconceptions about heart attack abound, especially when it comes to how the problem affects women.

For years heart attack was thought to be a man's problem. Now we know that it's a threat to both men and women.

But women are still less likely to survive heart attacks than men. This may be because women are likely to have heart attacks at an older age than men or because they fail to recognize symptoms and seek prompt treatment.

Whatever the reason, women can help protect their health by learning the facts about heart attack.

Understanding your risks can help you avoid a heart attack and make sure you get the treatment you need if one happens.

Heart attack basics

Heart attacks in both men and women usually start with heart disease. Cholesterol builds up in the coronary arteries. Eventually this buildup can lead to blood clots that block the blood supply to part of the heart muscle. The result is a heart attack. About every 40 seconds, someone in the United States has a heart attack, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

Some heart attacks cause sudden and severe symptoms. But most start slowly with mild pain or discomfort. AHA lists these signs of a heart attack:

  • Discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes. It can come and go, and it may feel more like pressure than pain.
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body, such as the jaw, back, neck or arms.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Light-headedness, nausea or a cold sweat.

Chest discomfort, especially with any of the other signs, is a signal to get help. Call 911 right away if you think you're having a heart attack, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI).

Symptoms for women

Knowing the signs of a heart attack is important for everyone. But according to the AHA and NHLBI, women are more likely than men to experience:

  • Unusual fatigue and weakness.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Back or jaw pain.

Unfortunately, women often ignore their symptoms or delay getting help, according to the NHLBI.

Extra risk

That women are less likely than men to survive a heart attack may be due to delays in seeking treatment. Or it may be because women have smaller hearts and finer, more fragile blood vessels than men.

Until recently, doctors themselves didn't understand women's risks. Early heart attack research was done mostly on men, and heart disease was considered to be a man's disease.

But that is changing. The AHA and other health organizations have developed guidelines to make sure women are diagnosed and treated correctly.

What women can do

Understanding the risks for heart disease can help women protect themselves from heart attack. These risks include:

  • A family history of heart disease.
  • Being older than 55.
  • High blood pressure.
  • High cholesterol.

You can't change your age or your family history. But you can reduce your other risks by making healthy lifestyle choices. The AHA recommends these:

Don't smoke cigarettes, and avoid secondhand smoke.

Be physically active at least 30 minutes a day on five or more days a week.

Eat a heart-healthy diet with an emphasis on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat or nonfat dairy products, lean meats, and fish.

Work toward a healthy weight by balancing the foods you eat with physical activity.

You're in charge

If you're at risk for heart disease, take control of your own health and your healthcare. Assess your risk factors with your doctor and work to keep them low.

If you're at high risk for heart trouble, that could mean asking your doctor about medicines that can prevent heart attack. Or it could mean insisting on aggressive testing and therapy if you do have symptoms of heart attack.

Don't underestimate what you can do for your own heart. Most heart attacks can be prevented, and it starts with you.

Reviewed 12/5/2022

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