Published on March 17, 2020

heart concept figures cut out of paper

What Happens When Women Have Heart Attacks

It might start with fluttering vision, or an overwhelming wave of tiredness, one so big and sudden that you just feel like lying down, right there at the checkout counter in the grocery store.

Heart attacks don’t happen to women like something in a movie – in fact, many times women can have cardiac arrest without chest pain. The underlying cause – undetected cardiovascular disease – brings with it subtle hints when it reveals as an emergency.

“Women can have heart attacks and feel shortness of breath pain or in their neck, jaw, back or shoulders instead of the chest,” said cardiologist Sherrie Brooks, DO, FACC, Avera Heart Hospital. “They might have a general feeling that something’s not ‘right’ or feel dizzy. They might start sweating without exertion.”

Heart attack signs differ between genders, but one thing does not differ, and that’s the fact heart disease remains the No. 1 cause of death, worldwide, for both men and women.

“Women can have no signs at all and still have heart disease,” said Brooks. “As women, we tend to focus on other conditions more readily, especially women 20-40 years old. Breast cancer is more commonly worried about than cardiovascular disease, even though heart disease kills more people than many cancers combined.”

You Have to Look to Find It

There is controversial evidence that certain hormones protect women from heart disease.

“There’s disagreement about whether or not hormone therapy protects the heart,” Brooks said. “Clinical trials, including the Women’s Health Initiative and the Heart and Estrogen/Progestin Replacement Study do not support the cardioprotective effects theory.”

Researchers have conducted fewer clinical trials involving women and heart disease. The condition is often diagnosed later in women. “In some cases, it’s not diagnosed at all,” said Brooks. “Chest discomfort in some women might be seen as normal, even when it happens at rest.”

Yet 80% of women 40 and older already have risk factors for coronary disease. Which is why checkups and exams that consider heart health are important.

“Once the condition reaches a certain point, there’s less that can be done to address it, and that’s why identifying and calibrating a woman’s risk earlier can help curtail the process of the disease,” Brooks said. “Factors such as early menopause or difficulties during pregnancy can be signs or factors for consideration.”

If you haven’t already, talk to your primary care provider about heart health or screening exams to evaluate your cardiac disease risks.

History is Critical

Women, regardless of age, who have had a parent or sibling who experienced heart attack need to tell their primary care provider about it – right away.

“If you have direct family who faced high blood pressure or high cholesterol or other numbers that were too high, talk to your doctor,” Brooks said. “Knowing your numbers is important, too, but any family history of heart disease – even in young adults – should be part of your medical record so that risk can be addressed.”

Defeating No. 1

Stopping the threat of heart disease starts with reviewing history and knowing your numbers for cholesterol and other factors, yes, but from what happens from there?

“It can be addressed with changes in lifestyle such as a better diet, more exercise and maintaining a healthy weight,” said Brooks. “If you smoke, take steps to quit, and if you don’t smoke, do not start. Get exercise several times a week, and eat more vegetables and fruits, along with lean meats and whole grains. Every woman can do something about heart disease – and when they do, they can reduce their risks that comes with this deadly disease.”

Learn more about screenings, including the affordable Planet Heart program.

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Avera is a health ministry rooted in the Gospel. Our mission is to make a positive impact in the lives and health of persons and communities by providing quality services guided by Christian values.