Heart Attacks in Women: What You Need to Know

Feb 12, 2019

Did you know that approximately every 40 seconds someone in the United States has a heart attack? If you or someone close to you has had a heart attack, you know this can be a very frightening experience. However, tens of thousands of people survive their attacks and go on to live enjoyable lives.

Even though men and women are at equal risk of experiencing a heart attack, the symptoms can be different for women. Knowing the warning signs, symptoms and risk factors can help you protect yourself and lower your chances of a heart attack.Woman expereincing heart attack, clutching chest

What is a Heart Attack?

Your heart muscles need oxygen. When the blood flow to your heart is reduced or cut off, causing less oxygen to get to your heart, that is when a heart attack occurs. This blockage may occur because of a buildup of fat, cholesterol, and other substances, that together are referred to as plaque.

When a heart attack occurs your heart muscle is damaged but heals by forming scar tissue. This usually takes several weeks, but the recovery time is dependent on the extent of damage caused by the attack.

Symptoms of a Heart Attack in Women

There are no warning signs of when a heart attack is going to happen. You only feel the symptoms as it is taking place. Most of these symptoms start slowly and increase in pain and discomfort as the attack progresses. Even though men and women experience similar symptoms, women are more likely to feel:

  • Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • Shortness of breath, with or without chest discomfort
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting

Many women think the signs of a heart attack are unmistakable, but they can, in fact, be subtle and sometimes confusing. Some women have described upper back pressure that feels like squeezing or a rope being tied around them while having a heart attack.

If you or someone you know experiences any of these symptoms, call 911 and get to the hospital right away.

Understanding Your Risk

Through extensive research, certain risk factors have been identified as putting a person at greater risk of a heart attack. These factors fall into three categories:

  1. Major risk factors: These factors significantly increase your risk of a heart attack and cardiovascular disease.
  2. Modifiable risk factors: Some major risk factors can be controlled, treated or modified through medications or a lifestyle change.
  3. Contributing risk factors: Factors associated with the increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

Major Risk Factors

If you know you’re at higher risk of a heart attack due to circumstances beyond your control, pay closer attention to the lifestyle factors you can change to cut your risk of a heart attack. Since you cannot change them, major risk factors are important to know and are aware of. They include:

  • Increasing Age – Older women who have a heart attack are more likely to die within a few weeks of the attack than older men.
  • Family History
  • Heredity – including race

There are major risk factors that an individual can modify, treat or control. These include:

  • Smoking
  • High blood cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Physical inactivity

Never think that you are too young to experience a heart attack. They can happen to anyone, at any age. You’re never too young, or too old to change your habits and start heart-healthy living. If you are over 40 or have multiple risk factors, speak to your doctor or midwife about your risk factors and how you can reduce your risk of a heart attack.

Life After A Heart Attack

After experiencing a heart attack, many women can feel scared, overwhelmed and confused. A heart attack is a life-changing event. You will likely receive instructions and information from your doctor following treatment about how to move forward.

Many people will go on to live long and healthy lives following their first heart attack. However, according to the American Heart Association, around 20 percent of patients aged 45 and older will experience a second heart attack within five years. Make preventing another heart attack your number one priority when you return home. Here are some ways you can do that:

  • Take your medications as prescribed: You may be given certain medications that can greatly lower your risk of another cardiac event. It’s important to manage your medications and take them correctly.
  • Attend your follow-up appointments: These appointments will help your doctors keep track of your condition and recovery.
  • Participate in cardiac rehabilitation: Cardiac rehabilitation is a medically supervised program designed to help you in your recovery.
  • Get support: Getting support following your heart attack can help you cope with the experience. You can connect with other survivors and caregivers through the American Heart Association Support Network.
  • Manage your risk factors: It’s important to manage your risk factors not only before but after your attack.

If you or someone you know experiences any of the symptoms related to a heart attack, call 9-1-1 and get help right away. When you get help quickly, treatment can save your life and prevent permanent damage to your heart. Don’t let a heart attack keep you from living a long, fulfilling life. Talk to one of our doctors or midwives about your risk factors and discuss a plan together today. 



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