One way to fight heart disease is to raise awareness among women and the medical community. For a variety of reasons, people continue to underestimate and overlook the prevalence and seriousness of heart disease in women. More research is needed to fully understand why women may not receive the treatment they need as quickly as they need it, but here are a few possible explanations:
• Traditionally, the emphasis has been on men and the well-known heart attack symptoms of chest pain and shortness of breath. When a woman has a heart attack, her symptoms may be different or more subtle—potentially causing her and her health care providers to overlook the cause of the problem.
• Women and men are different. Factors, such as a woman’s hormonal changes during menopause, have an impact on how a woman is affected by cardiovascular disease and the effectiveness and risks associated with certain treatments.
• Women may be less likely to ask for help when they don’t feel well.
Raising awareness among patients and healthcare providers will arm women with the information they need to take better care of themselves and their families.
Learn the Warning Signs—All of Them
Women, even young women, have heart attacks. Just ask Melissa Wagner who was 40 when she had a heart attack. She says, “Women need to know the warning signs and risk factors. We have to know heart disease happens to women, too, and we may not experience the classic symptoms you see in the movies or on TV.”
Because we’re all different, one person’s heart attack can feel very different from another’s—no matter what your gender. Although the majority of people (approximately 70 percent) who have heart attacks experience some type of chest pain, most don’t experience the so-called “Hollywood heart attack”—a sensation of such pain and pressure that the victim, usually portrayed by a man, is left breathless and clutching his chest. Many people, including women, have other very subtle symptoms or no symptoms at all.
Fewer than 30 percent of U.S. women reported chest pain or discomfort before a heart attack, and 43 percent reported having no chest pain during any phase of the attack, according to a study from the National Institutes of Health.
Peggy Vardeman has had several heart events without ever having chest pain. “It’s always in my back,” she says. “I’m a perfect example of women experiencing different symptoms than men.” And, according to her doctor, Jeffrey Marshall, MD, FSCAI, an interventional cardiologist with the Northeast Georgia Heart Center, Peggy’s experience was “surprisingly common for women with cardiovascular disease. “Women are more likely to experience nausea, general fatigue, and shortness of breath.”
Unfortunately, many women don’t know these warning signs, so they ignore them and don’t get the help they need in time. So, it’s very important to pay attention to how you feel and know that you don’t have to have chest pain or other intense symptoms to be having a heart attack.
If you’re still not sure, ask yourself, “Have I ever felt this way before without it going away?” If the answer is “no,” trust your instincts and get help. Don’t worry about looking silly if it turns out you’re not having a heart attack. There’s too much at stake to take a chance. You could face life-changing disabilities or even death if you don’t act quickly.