Women: Think You Know the Signs of Heart Attack? Think Again


We’ve all seen it in the movies: a person doubles over, grabbing their chest or left arm. This is the popular depiction of heart attack symptoms, but many people – especially women – may not experience those red flags that alert you to call 911.

Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women – claiming one life every minute – yet many women don’t know the signs of heart attack may not be the same symptoms they’ve learned about all their lives.

The latest studies show 6 percent of people who have heart attacks don’t even realize it. In women, nearly 71 percent experienced unusual exhaustion in the weeks before, 50 percent had trouble sleeping and 42 percent suffered shortness of breath. Mostly importantly, about 43 percent had no chest pain.

Women and Heart Attacks: The Subtle Symptoms

In both men and women, the most common symptom is pressure or pain in the mid chest, but there are also more subtle signs. “Women can experience a heart attack without chest pain,” explains Letitia Anderson, M.D., cardiologist with Renown Institute for Heart & Vascular Health. “It is not uncommon for women to experience extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, lightheadedness, nausea, vomiting and pain in the abdomen or back as their primary symptom.”

Other symptoms can include:

  • Neck or jaw pain
  • Fullness or pressure that goes away and comes back
  • The feeling of a rope being tied around your body and squeezed
  • Some doctors have reported seeing patients who just didn’t feel right. One woman simply felt more tired than usual while cleaning, while another woman reported feeling winded carrying boxes to the basement, even something as minor as her left hand feeling a little heavy.

Admittedly these are symptoms many of us would shrug or sleep off versus going to the hospital for immediate care, which is why it’s important to pay close attention to the warning signs.

“Women are good at being the caregiver for the rest of the family and writing off their own symptoms as something minor, like indigestion or a muscle pull,” says Dr. Anderson. “Remember that heart attacks have early warning signs, and if they are recognized and treated in time, a heart attack can be prevented and heart damage avoided.”

When You Need to Call 911

Paying attention to your body is key. If you’ve experienced any unusual or flu-like symptoms, struggled to breathe or just don’t feel right – give yourself a gut check and ask if you’ve honestly felt this way before. If you’re worried at all, you need to seek emergency care.

  • Do not wait – call 911 immediately.
  • Take an ambulance to the hospital if at all possible.

Try to stay calm and take deep, slow breaths until medical help arrives.

Are You at Increased Risk?

Aging is a significant risk factor, with more than 88,000 women between ages 45 and 64 having heart attacks each year. “At menopause, a woman’s heart disease risk increases significantly,” Dr. Anderson says. “However, risk factors like diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, family history of heart disease and being overweight and smoking increase the possibility of heart attack in women at even younger ages.”

women and heart disease
Physical exercise like walking — just 30 minutes per day — can reduce risk of heart disease.

Reducing Your Risk

The good news is you’re never too young to start living a healthy lifestyle and reducing your risk. “The most important thing you can do is be screened for risk factors and control the ones that can be controlled,” says Dr. Anderson. “Although you can’t change your family history, you can control blood pressure, weight, physical activity and even conditions like diabetes.”

Some simple steps to reduce your risk:

  • Eat a heart-healthy diet: Focus on vegetables and fruits; moderate healthy fats and protein; and limit salt and sugar.
  • Exercise: Doctors say you don’t have to workout for hours every day; walking just 30 minutes per day lowers your risk of heart attack and stroke.
  • If you smoke, stop: Smoking hardens your arteries and restricts your blood flow.

If you are worried about your heart health, the Renown Institute for Heart & Vascular Health is here to help. Call 775-982-2400 to make an appointment. And again, if you are having unusual symptoms or just don’t feel right, please call 911.