Popular culture often portrays heart disease as a specifically male affliction. Have you ever seen a TV show or movie in which a female character clutches her chest and collapses to the ground while in the throes of a heart attack?
While scenes like this probably do exist, they are few and far between.
Heart disease does indeed impact men and women differently, but not in the way that most people would assume. In fact, heart disease has killed more women than men in the United States every year since 1984, according to the Heart Foundation. Moreover, more women die from heart disease than all cancers combined.
The ways heart attacks manifest in women provide some insights into the uniquely female experience of heart disease. For one, women are more likely than men to die from a heart attack. Additionally, more than half of women who die from heart attacks have no prior symptoms of heart disease. The symptoms that women do have tend to be more subtle.
In a recent analysis by Treato.com of discussions in online health forums, it was found that most women who had heart attacks did not suffer the crushing chest pain that people know to be the primary symptom of a heart attack. Instead, they had less intense aches in their shoulders, back or neck. In many cases they remembered feeling dizzy, fatigued or as if they had heartburn or indigestion.
Because these symptoms did not scream “call 911!”, women sometimes waited several days before seeking medical attention (it’s estimated that women wait 38 hours longer than men do to seek treatment for heart attack symptoms). This is perhaps one reason why heart attacks are more deadly for women. In the forums, women said they dismissed their symptoms because they felt like they were “too young” to have heart issues, especially if they were not overweight and did not have high cholesterol.
The main takeaway? Women and health practitioners must work together to ensure that women are well-informed about the risks of heart disease. Common risk factors like smoking, lack of exercise, stress and a family history of heart disease should not be overlooked.
As you enter middle age, talk to your doctor about heart disease and find out if you fit the profile. That conversation could save your life…