Women, heart attacks, and heart disease: What you know might save you
Heart disease is the leading cause of death among women in the United States. Roughly 80% of women between ages 40 and 60 have at least one risk factor for coronary heart disease — the most common type of heart disease. Unfortunately, for women, a heart attack is often the first noticeable sign.
Knowing the signs of a heart attack in women and what to do about them can help prevent permanent damage to your heart. It may even save your life.
What is a heart attack?
The heart needs oxygen to work efficiently. When oxygen-rich blood can't reach it, damage occurs. That damage is a heart attack (also called a myocardial infarction or MI).
Coronary artery disease is a common cause of heart attacks. It causes plaque (small deposits of fat, cholesterol, and other substances) to build in the arteries — the tubes carrying blood from the heart — which causes them to narrow.
Plaque builds in the arteries over time and may thicken enough to prevent blood from reaching the heart. Plaque can also break away and move through the bloodstream until it gets stuck and blocks blood flow.
Signs and symptoms of heart attacks in women
Pain or discomfort in the chest is the most common heart attack symptom for men and women. The pain might be steady for a few minutes or come and go. It can feel like a mild discomfort or severe pain.
We often picture a person dramatically grabbing their chest in pain, as seen on TV, during a heart attack, but that is not what a heart attack looks like for most people. Women are more likely than men to have nontraditional heart attack symptoms and may not experience any chest pain or discomfort. Women's heart attack symptoms can include:
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Fatigue (extreme tiredness)
- Feelings of anxiety or fear
- Heartburn or indigestion
- Nausea or vomiting
- Pain in the neck, jaw, throat, or back
- Pressure in the upper back
- Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
- Tightness in or pressure on the chest
Women are also more likely than men to have silent heart attacks. This type of heart attack does not cause noticeable symptoms and may not be diagnosed until months later.
What to do if you think you're having a heart attack
Call 911 right away if you have any heart attack symptoms that last more than five minutes. It's better to call and be wrong than to wait. Women often wait longer to get help and, as a result, are more likely to die of a heart attack than men. Delays in treatment can also impact your long-term health. One study showed you may lose one year of life for every 30 minutes you wait to get help.
When you call 911, the operator will give you instructions on what to do while you wait for the emergency medical technicians (EMTs) to arrive. This might include taking aspirin, which may lower the risk of heart damage and death by 25%.
Heart attack treatment
Once EMTs arrive, tell them all your symptoms and if you have had a previous heart attack. Let them know if heart disease runs in your family.
The EMTs will likely check your vital signs and may begin treatment on the way to the hospital.
Once at the hospital, providers will monitor your symptoms and may run tests to get more information. They may also give you medications to increase blood flow, lower blood pressure, or break up blood clots.
You may need additional procedures in the hospital to treat the heart attack, such as:
- An angioplasty: A nonsurgical procedure to clear the blockage and open your artery
- Coronary artery bypass grafting: A surgical procedure that involves moving a blood vessel from another part of your body to reroute blood around the blocked artery
Once you're stable and have returned home, your provider may order cardiac rehabilitation to help you recover and return to your everyday life. During rehab, you'll work with a team of providers to get stronger, decrease stress, and improve your heart health.
Preventing heart disease and heart attacks
The best way to prevent future heart attacks is by taking steps to prevent or treat heart disease:
- Eat a heart-healthy diet.
- Exercise regularly. Try walking around the neighborhood or adding physical activity into your everyday routine.
- Don't smoke.
- Get enough sleep.
- Manage other chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
Thinking about heart disease or managing life after a heart attack can feel overwhelming, but you don't have to go through it alone.