Women and heart attacks

Heart attack symptoms and silent warning signs in women


woman about to climb a rock climbing wall

The symptoms of a heart attack are different for women. Knowing how to spot them could save lives.

In the movies, a heart attack is a dramatic event. The victim clutches their chest and falls to the ground. In real life, though, the signs of a heart attack may be silent, or not nearly so obvious, especially for women.

Cardiovascular disease is the no. 1 cause of death in women, accounting for one in three female deaths each year. According to the American Heart Association, 80% of cardiovascular disease may be prevented.

If you have recently been diagnosed with heart disease, you can get help from your Regence health plan. Case Management can help you find out more about your disease and understand your treatment options.

Learning the signs of heart attacks in women can save lives. Learning how to prevent heart attacks can, too.

Heart attacks: Watch for the signs

According to the American Heart Association, heart attack symptoms for women and men can include uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the chest; cold sweats; dizziness or fainting; and anxiety or a sense of impending doom.

Although chest pain is common in women with a heart attack, some women do not experience chest pain at all.

Symptoms more common in women than men include shortness of breath; nausea or vomiting; pain in one or both arms; and neck, back, jaw or stomach pain.

Heart disease kills about one woman every minute in the United States, according to the American Heart Association's Go Red for Women program. Despite this, only one in five women believe heart disease is the biggest threat to their health.

Also consider that heart disease is not an equal opportunity disease for women. Depending on your ethnicity and racial background, your heart disease risk may be higher or lower compared with other women. Go Red for Women details important information on this:

  • African American women are disproportionately affected by heart disease, leading the death rate regardless of age. Cardiovascular disease kills nearly 50,000 African American women each year.
  • Of African American women ages 20 and older, 49% have heart disease.
  • Only 36% of African American women know that heart disease is their greatest health risk.
  • Hispanic women are 38% more likely than all other racial groups to take preventive action for their families when it comes to heart health, but often completely ignore their own health in the process.
  • On average, Hispanic women are likely to develop heart disease 10 years earlier than non-Hispanics.
  • Only one in three Hispanic women are aware that heart disease is their no. 1 killer.

infographic with signs to watch out for: dizziness, anxiety, cold sweats, chest pain, nausea & vomiting, pain, and shortness of breath

Women often brush off warning symptoms

Although women do experience "classic" symptoms of heart attack, such as chest pain and pressure, they are more likely than men to have sweating, nausea and jaw pain. These atypical symptoms are easily brushed off as the flu, stress or the result of busy lives.

Unfortunately, not taking heart attack symptoms seriously can put a woman's life in jeopardy.

What makes matters worse is the tendency for doctors to take women's heart attack symptoms less seriously than men's.

According to a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, an increased diagnosis of heart attacks in women did not translate into better care. Women were about half as likely as men to receive recommended heart attack treatments. The improvement in diagnosis also did not lead to a decrease in the number of women who experienced another heart attack or died from cardiovascular disease within a year.

The bottom line? Take heart attack symptoms seriously. Advocate for yourself if the doctor in the emergency room brushes off your concerns about heart disease.

What to do during a heart attack

According to Go Red for Women, if you experience heart attack signs or symptoms:

  • Do not wait to call for help. Dial 9-1-1, make sure to follow the operator's instructions and get to a hospital right away.
  • Do not drive yourself. Have someone drive you to the hospital, unless you have no other choice.
  • Try to stay as calm as possible and take deep, slow breaths while you wait for the emergency responders.

Women often misdiagnose the symptoms of a heart attack because they’re unaware of the signs or they consider themselves healthy and don’t think it could happen to them. That’s why it’s so important to learn about heart disease and stroke, know your numbers, live a heart-healthy lifestyle and be aware of the risk factors of heart disease.