Did you know that heart disease remains the number 1 killer of women in the U.S.? Responding to its signs and symptoms can help save your life. But first it helps to know that women may experience these signs and symptoms a little differently than men.
Signs and symptoms in women. Heart disease often develops when fatty substances called plaque build up in large vessels of the heart (coronary arteries). Narrowed arteries may slow blood flow, which may temporarily cut off oxygen to the heart muscle. This may produce certain signs and symptoms of angina, such as chest tightness, pressure, or discomfort. Angina usually happens when you’re active or stressed—and goes away soon after you stop exercising or feeling stressed.
In women, however, symptoms may occur during normal daily activities or times of stress and may include:
• Sharp, severe chest pain
• Chest pain that lasts longer than 10 minutes
• Shortness of breath
• Sleep problems, fatigue, and lack of energy
• Abdominal pain
If you have symptoms like these, call your doctor right away.
In women, symptoms of heart attack (heart damage) may be more subtle than they are in men. They may include:
• Chest pressure, squeezing, or pain that lasts for a few minutes or comes and goes
• Pain in your jaw, arm, neck, stomach, or back
• Shortness of breath—this may happen without any chest discomfort
• Sweating, nausea, dizziness or light-headedness
If you have symptoms of heart attack, call 911 right away. Do not drive yourself to the hospital. Even if you’re in doubt, get checked. Better safe than sorry? Well, that gets to the heart of the matter, doesn’t it?
Why symptoms may be different in women. Researchers can’t completely explain these differences. However, in men, heart disease usually occurs from blockages in coronary arteries. In women, heart disease or damage may develop in the tiny arteries that branch out from the coronary arteries. Angina symptoms may be due to spasms within these small blood vessels. Called microvascular disease (MVD), this may occur more often in younger women.
Broken heart syndrome is another heart condition that mainly affects women. Doctors don’t understand it well. With this syndrome, extreme emotional stress can cause severe heart muscle failure. Although the symptoms of this syndrome are similar to those of a heart attack, most people recover quickly and fully.
Diagnosis. Your doctor may diagnose heart disease based on a combination of your medical history, physical exam, and test results. However, standard tests such as cardiac catheterization often won’t spot MVD or broken heart syndrome. That’s because they are designed to assess blockages in the heart’s larger vessels. Researchers are still looking for the best ways to diagnose heart disease in women.
Reducing your risks. Even with these unanswered questions, you can still do something right now to reduce your risk of heart disease. For example, do you need to stop smoking, drop some pounds, or increase your activity level? Do you have high blood pressure or cholesterol? Talk with your doctor or me about ways to reduce these risks. If you need any high blood pressure or cholesterol medications, let’s work together to make sure you reap the most benefits with the fewest side effects.