Many people know that heart disease is the leading cause of death for men. But did you know that heart disease kills almost twice as many women as all cancers combined? Many women don’t realize they are at risk because their symptoms can be different from what men experience.
Joanna Rock, DO, an Atlantic Health System cardiologist, shares the heart attack symptoms and risk factors women need to know.
Heart attack symptoms
The most common symptom of a heart attack in men and women is chest pain. For women the pain can be subtle, and they are more likely to dismiss or ignore the pain. Other shared symptoms include:
- Pain in the neck, jaw or arm
- Shortness of breath
- Excessive sweating
- Feeling lightheaded
During a heart attack women might also experience:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Indigestion or heartburn
- Back pain
- Tightness in the throat, upper back and abdomen
- Stomach pain
- Numbness or tingling in the arms
- Inability to sleep
- Unexplained anxiety
When to seek help
Because many of the heart attack symptoms women experience are common in other health conditions, they can be confusing and difficult to link to heart trouble. That’s why it’s important to understand your risk.
“In many families women take care of everyone else and neglect their own health,” said Dr. Rock. “Many of my female patients wouldn’t hesitate to call 911 for their husband if he was having chest pain, but they underestimate their own risk for a heart attack and dismiss the symptoms.”
Reduce your risk
When it comes to heart disease or a heart attack, prevention is possible by minimizing your risk factors. Both men and women who are overweight, have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or a history of smoking or diabetes are more likely to develop heart disease. Additional risk factors for women include:
- Family history of heart disease. A family history of heart disease or a heart attack can increase your risk.
- Autoimmune disorders or chronic inflammation. Women with an autoimmune disease are more likely to experience a heart attack. Work with your doctor to manage your symptoms and minimize inflammation.
- Excessive stress. Chronic stress floods your system with cortisol and can cause inflammation.
- Menopause. Women frequently develop heart disease symptoms almost a decade later than men. Estrogen protects the heart and the drop in estrogen levels after menopause leaves some women more vulnerable to a heart attack.
Of course, we can’t control our family history and menopause. However, Dr. Rock says a heart-healthy diet and getting plenty of exercise can help manage your weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar. She also stresses the importance of regular check-ups, which will help you and your doctor keep an eye on your heart and overall health.
“Women are afraid of being a burden, but I would rather put a patient’s mind at ease and help them prevent heart disease or a heart attack whenever possible,” said Dr. Rock.
Be Proactive About Heart Health
Heart attacks happen in women more often than you think. If you’re looking to improve your heart health, start by managing your risk factors in partnership with a cardiologist or primary care physician.