Heart attacks occur equally in men and women. Yet many people – women included – believe heart attacks mainly affect middle-aged men. This can lead to women not recognizing or ignoring key symptoms and putting off treatment until it’s too late.
Most heart attacks are caused by coronary artery disease. This occurs when plaque develops in coronary arteries, causing them to narrow and stiffen over time. Heart attacks occur when a piece of plaque breaks off, blocks a coronary artery and cuts off blood supply to the heart.
Although heart attacks affect both men and women, they often experience different symptoms. Men tend to have classic symptoms, such as crushing chest pain and pain radiating to the left arm.
Women are different. Instead of chest pain, they tend to experience chest discomfort. This might present as uncomfortable chest pressure or may even be as subtle as a bra feeling much tighter than usual.
Other symptoms may include:
- Arm, back, neck, jaw or stomach discomfort
- Shortness of breath
- Cold sweat
A common misconception is that there is no mistaking heart attack symptoms. This is often not the case. Women often mistake their symptoms for the flu and put off seeking medical attention. Unfortunately, this delay in treatment can lead to significant damage to the heart muscle. Think of it this way: time is muscle – the sooner you’re treated, the more heart muscle you spare and the more likely you’ll have a full recovery.
If you believe you are experiencing a heart attack, chew an aspirin. This will help prevent your platelets from sticking to each other. You also need to immediately go to the hospital for treatment. Even if you aren’t sure if you’re having a heart attack, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Once at the hospital, be proactive about and involved in your care. Sometimes providers overlook women’s heart attack symptoms. Data from the American Heart Association shows women get care for heart attacks later, which means they end up sicker with more complications. Don’t be shy about pushing for the appropriate tests to determine if you are having a heart attack.
At Edward-Elmhurst Health, we’re committed to helping women – and men – recognize risk factors to prevent heart attacks. We offer low-dose CT scans to help people learn more about their heart health as well as classes and workshops to help people lower their risk for heart disease.