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Women and Heart Attacks: Know Your Risk

October 3, 2023

A woman with a healthy heart sits on a park bench and smiles.

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?

Women often don’t realize they are at risk because their symptoms can be different from what men experience. Anjali Dutta, MD, an Atlantic Health System cardiologist, shares the heart attack symptoms and risk factors that women need to know.

Heart Attack Symptoms

“Persistent chest pain and discomfort is still the most common heart attack symptom for both men and women,” says Dr. Dutta. “But for women, it often feels more like pressure or tightness, and it isn’t always the most noticeable symptom.”

She explains that it is possible to have a heart attack without chest pain. Here are some of the other common symptoms:

  • Pain in the neck, jaw or arm
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Indigestion or heartburn
  • Back pain
  • Tightness in the throat, upper back and abdomen
  • Stomach pain
  • Numbness or tingling in the arms

When to Seek Help

Because many of the heart attack symptoms women experience are common in other health conditions, they can be confusing, and often difficult to link to heart trouble.

“It’s important for women to know the signs of a heart attack because undetected symptoms can be fatal,” says Dr. Dutta. “The key is to minimize 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: If your parents or sibling(s) have been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease, it’s important to have your own risk level evaluated.

Autoimmune disorders or chronic inflammation: Chronic inflammation and autoimmune conditions can cause inflammatory damage of cardiac muscle cells (cardiomyocytes), which leads to cardiac damage.

Excessive stress: Chronic stress floods your system with cortisol and can cause inflammation, which causes arterial plaque that creates blockages or triggers blood clots.

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.

Dr. Dutta says a heart-healthy diet and plenty of exercise can help manage your weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar. She also stresses the importance of regular checkups, which will help you and your doctor keep an eye on your heart and overall health.

“Every second counts when it comes to a heart attack,” says Dr. Dutta. “Listen to your body and act fast. Call 911 if you’re experiencing symptoms. And even if you’re not experiencing symptoms, a visit to a cardiologist could still be lifesaving.”

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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.

  • Heart Health
  • Women's Health