When you think about the symptoms of a heart attack, what comes to mind? Chest pain, shortness of breath?
In women, symptoms can be much more subtle (think indigestion and jaw pain) and can show up more than a month before the heart attack.
It’s a misconception that heart disease is a men’s issue. In fact, it kills more women than all forms of cancer combined. And common occurrences, such as stress, preeclampsia during a pregnancy and gum disease, can increase the risk.
In this episode of San Diego Health, host Susan Taylor and guests Scripps Women’s Heart Center cardiologists Christina Adams, MD, and Poulina Uddin, MD, discuss how heart attack symptoms are different in women and share what you need to know about heart health — and the sooner, the better.
Both men and women may feel chest pain during a heart attack, but that is where most of the similarities end. Women tend to have subtler symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, neck or jaw pain and sudden dizziness – and some of these may begin up to a month before the attack.
If you experience any of the symptoms associated with women and heart disease, don’t ignore them. Play it safe and call 911. The sooner you get treatment, the greater the chances of recovery.
Because many of these symptoms can be associated with common illnesses such as the flu, women are more likely to brush them off or assume the cause is something less serious and that can be a serious or even fatal mistake.
Many factors increase the risk of heart disease, including family history, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, high sodium intake, smoking, being overweight and physical inactivity. In addition, certain conditions that only or primarily affect women also appear to influence heart disease risk, including:
Women’s hormone related conditions:
Hormones, especially estrogen, may play a role in protecting women from heart disease, which suggests women’s risk for heart disease increases after menopause. Hormone replacement therapy for menopausal symptoms should be discussed with a health care provider.
Chronic inflammatory conditions:
Women are more likely than men to develop autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA), systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) which are associated with increased inflammation in the body. When blood vessels become inflamed, they become narrower, which can raise the risk of heart disease or stroke.
One recognized condition known as broken heart syndrome is more likely to affect women. Also called stress-induced cardiomyopathy or Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, broken heart syndrome results from extreme emotional stress, such as the loss of a loved one. The result can be severe heart failure.
While the symptoms of broken heart syndrome are often similar to those of a heart attack, including chest pain and shortness of breath, there is no sign of blockages in the arteries.
Researchers have focused primarily on men’s hearts. By partnering with a physician who understands the unique needs of women’s hearts, women can get the most appropriate heart care and disease prevention strategies.
Scripps Women’s Heart Center offers heart care exclusively for women, by women. It is dedicated to empowering women to take care of their hearts through education, lifestyle and, when needed, expert medical care.
The four female cardiologists at the center are experts in both cardiology and integrative/holistic medicine, and specialize in heart conditions specifically associated with women, including heart problems due to cancer or menopause.
If you have a heart condition you may need to take special precautions before and during pregnancy. The cardiologists at Scripps Women’s Heart Center can evaluate your heart condition throughout your pregnancy and help ensure a safe outcome for you and your baby.