How Women's Heart Attack Symptoms Are Different Than Men's

Know the symptoms of heart attack in women because cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of women.

Menopause & Aging Well


Here's some good news for all of you who received dark chocolate for Valentine's Day: You're eating something that is heart healthy. The flavonoids found in dark chocolate are friendly to your vascular health and can lower blood pressure, improve blood flow to your brain and heart and make blood platelets less sticky and able to clot.

But while you're munching on your chocolate (and not too much of it!) be aware of this: Sometimes the reality of hearing that coronary heart disease—not cancer—is the number one cause of death for American women is startling.

Yet, the fact is that more women die from a heart attack, stroke or other related forms of coronary heart disease than of all types of cancers combined—and that includes breast cancer.

Another startling fact: Since 1984, more women have died of cardiovascular disease than men. More than one in three women have some form of cardiovascular disease, according to the American Heart Association, with an overall increase in heart attacks occurring around 10 years after menopause.

And while it's true that family history contributes to your risk, you can also take charge of your heart health by eating right (include fruits, veggies and whole grains), eliminating unhealthy habits (quit smoking, limit red meat and sugary foods and drinks) and getting plenty of exercise (aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise each week).

Since February is heart month, it's always good to know the signs of a heart attack. Did you know they're different for women? That could be one of the reasons why fewer women than men survive a heart attack. Either women and their health care professionals don't recognize the symptoms, or medical personnel don't associate women with heart attacks as readily as they do men.

A heart attack is not always the classic feeling of an elephant sitting on your chest or a sudden, sharp pain that causes you to clutch your chest and collapse. Although the most common symptom for women is similar to men—feeling chest pain or discomfort—sometimes it's subtler than that:

  • You may feel short of breath—as if you've done heavy exercise—even though you haven't exerted yourself at all. This can occur with or without chest discomfort.
  • You might feel upper back pressure that may feel like there's a rope around you, being squeezed.
  • You may feel dizzy or lightheaded or may actually faint.
  • You may feel jaw, neck, arm or stomach pain.

You might experience nausea or vomiting.

Many women attribute their symptoms to things like having the flu, being tired, experiencing acid reflux or normal signs of aging. Others may think they're having a heart attack and simply take an aspirin, but not call 911, Neica Goldberg, MD, tells the American Heart Association. Dr. Goldberg, who is medical director of the Women’s Heart Program at NYU's Langone Medical Center, stresses that heart disease is preventable. She offers these tips:

Discuss your risk for heart disease with your health care provider

If you smoke, quit. After just one year, your risk of coronary heart disease can decrease by 50 percent.

If you don't already exercise, start now. Just 30 minutes of brisk walking a day can make a difference.

Eat—and snack—smart. Here are some healthy eating tips.

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