Heart Disease: Recognize the Symptoms of a Heart Attack – the No. 1 Killer of Women

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While women are constantly hearing how important it is to do breast self-exams and have annual mammograms, heart attack — not breast cancer — is the number one killer of women. So it’s extremely important that we recognize the symptoms of heart attack in women.

These symptoms can vary quite dramatically from the major symptoms men typically experience: chest discomfort/pressure (imagine an elephant sitting on your chest), discomfort in other areas of the upper body and shortness of breath. Women, however, can be suffering from a heart attack without having chest discomfort. That’s why it’s so very important to recognize the other symptoms, as outlined by the American Heart Association:

  • An uncomfortable feeling in the center of your chest (pressure, squeezing, fullness, pain) that lasts more than a few minutes, goes away, and returns
  • Pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck, back, one or both arms, or stomach
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Lightheadedness or fainting
  • Extreme fatigue

It’s the last four symptoms listed above that often are confused for something less serious, such as the flu or indigestion. If you experience these symptoms and think you’re having a heart attack, here’s what you should do, according to the Mayo Clinic and Harvard Medical School:

  • Call 911 immediately
  • Chew a standard 325-mg aspirin
  • If 911 is not an option, have someone drive you to the hospital
  • As a last resort, drive yourself to the hospital

In the event of a heart attack, time is of the essence. Treatments to restore the flow of blood (and oxygen) to the heart are most beneficial when used in the first several hours.

No, I’m not kidding about taking an aspirin. You should always keep some with or near you (for yourself and those you care about). I carry a bottle with me in my purse now. As a friend of mine just had a heart attack and the ER doctor told her the aspirin she chewed saved her life! Here’s why: Aspirin helps by inhibiting platelets. Most heart attacks develop when a cholesterol-laden plaque in a coronary artery ruptures. When it does, it attracts platelets — the tiny blood cells that trigger blood clotting — to its surface. As the clot grows, it blocks the artery. If the blockage is complete, it deprives part of the heart muscle of oxygen. Muscle cells die and, boom, it’s a heart attack.

However, don’t take coated aspirin, which will act too slowly. And be sure to chew, not swallow, the aspirin for it to be most effective.

Some physicians recommend taking a low-dose aspirin daily as a preventive measure to reduce the risk of heart attack. According to the American Heart Association, a study of women older than 65 revealed that a daily low-dose aspirin reduced both heart attack and stroke. Also, women who previously had a heart attack or stroke are known to benefit from daily low-dose aspirin. A side effect, however, is that aspirin increased by 40 percent the risk of bleeding within the stomach and intestines.

Perhaps the best preventive “medicine” you can practice for heart health is exercising regularly. A sedentary lifestyle is one of the risk factors of heart disease, so get moving! Exercise has many benefits, according to the Heart Association’s Go Red for Women site, including maintaining a healthy weight, keeping cholesterol and blood pressure down, and making the heart work more efficiently. Plus, exercise can help ease menopausal symptoms!

If you are on HRT and wonder if it’s safe for your heart, read the latest report from the KEEPS Study in this Menopause Mondays Health News Flash. Research does say that women can use estrogen as a way to treat common menopausal symptoms like hot flashes and night sweats without direct harm to their heart health. Transdermal HRT may be better for women with existing cardiovascular disease risk factors, because oral estrogen has been found to have a prothrombotic effect. The study found no effect on blood pressure with the low-dose KEEPS regimens.

You need to be in tune with your body, so that you’ll be aware if you’re experiencing these symptoms. Women often put themselves last on their own To Do List. If you hear yourself saying: “Oh, it’s nothing. I’ll be fine.” “Let me finish making dinner for the family first. Then you can take me to the hospital for tests.” “I don’t want to trouble you. I’m sure this will pass.” Stop and make sure that you are not sloughing off important symptoms that need addressing immediately.

Let’s get real, ladies! You’re not doing yourself or your loved ones any favor by downplaying the symptoms of a heart attack. Don’t be a super-heroine. Ask for help if you need it. It could be a matter of life or death.

Suffering in silence is OUT! Reaching out is IN! 

After struggling with her own severe menopause symptoms and doing years of research, Ellen resolved to share what she learned from experts and her own trial and error. Her goal was to replace the confusion, embarrassment, and symptoms millions of women go through–before, during, and after menopause–with the medically sound solutions she discovered. Her passion to become a “sister” and confidant to all women fueled Ellen’s first book, Shmirshky: the pursuit of hormone happiness. As a result of the overwhelming response from her burgeoning audiences and followers’ requests for empowering information they could trust, Ellen’s weekly blog, Menopause MondaysTM, was born.

  • I can never see this info enough, it is critical for women to know it.

    • Ellen Dolgen

      I totally agree, Carol. That is why I blog about it often. Most women have no idea that the symptoms of a heart attack are different for women. Thanks for spreading the word!

  • My uncle had a heart attack, and the doctor said the aspirin he took during the episode saved his life. He had to have a quadruple bypass. When I was 19 I was present when my Grandmother had a heart attack. Just thinking about it brings tears. It’s a terrifying thing.

    • Ellen Dolgen

      Thanks for sharing that with us, Tam. I can only imagine how difficult that was for you to see at 19 years old. I carry a little jar of aspirin with me wherever I go. Being proactive about your health is always the best!

  • Thank you for being the source for such consistently great information Ellen! We do down play and you are right, we are not doing anyone any favors. We all, through great campaigns like Go Red for Women, need to keep preaching!

    • Ellen Dolgen

      I agree, Ruth. This is why a year one month dedicated to Heart Health is not enough to tom-tom out the symptoms of a heart attack for women. Here’s to a healthy holiday!!!

  • An excellent reminder. Thank you, Ellen. I just recently shared an AHA video with my husband (after I’d had some odd heart funkiness) just to drive home the importance of us both being aware. And I shared the same video — the one featuring Elizabeth Banks — with my daughters. Though they’re all around 30, you just never know. It can happen to young women, too. Again, thanks, Ellen!

    • Ellen Dolgen

      That is a wonderful idea, Lisa. Be sure to carry aspirin in you purse!

  • This is wonderful advice. I have coronary heart disease in my family so I am very aware of my heart health and try had to address all measures that are said to help – exercise, Omega3, spinner. I have always heard that a heart in women manifests very differently than in men. I have always wondered what it is about the anatomy in women that would make that so. I may have to do some research about that.

    • Ellen Dolgen

      Good question, Ines. It infuriates me that most of the studies done on heart disease are all done on men and even male mice! It is time to study heart disease in women! I am happy that you are taking such good care of YOU!

  • Most cardiologists who are women and women physicians agree that women tend to take care of every one but themselves. Women will put off signs with thinking it is stress, no big deal! Good reminders, Ellen!

    • Ellen Dolgen

      So true, Haralee. The sisterhood has a tough time putting themselves are their own To Do List!

  • Wonderful message and so important too. When I heard these statistics years ago I started doing cardio for my heart to help myself. Thanks for this.

    • Ellen Dolgen

      Smart lady! Keep doing cardio! It is so important for heart health and overall health, too!