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Female's and Heart Attacks

Subtle Warning Signs You Should Know
By DuPage Medical Group Cardiology

Heart disease can develop in both men and women and if undetected or left untreated, can lead to other serious health issues, including a heart attack. Currently, an estimated 44 million women in the U.S. are affected by heart disease.  You may be at an increased risk to develop heart disease if any of the following factors apply:

  • Family history of heart disease
  • Elevated LDL (“bad” cholesterol)
  • Diabetes
  • Being overweight and/or leading an inactive lifestyle
  • Current or past smoker

Individuals with heart disease should work closely with their physician to develop a treatment plan to prevent heart attacks and other serious complications from developing.  It is important to be aware that heart disease and heart attack causes and symptoms may differ in men and women. For men, a heart attack is usually caused by an acute episode or sudden rupture of an artery due to plaque buildup. In women, plaque buildup is more likely to cause the artery wall to break down over time. Because of this, women are more likely to experience smaller, nonfatal heart attacks.  Women are also more likely to experience what is known as a “silent” heart attack. A silent heart attack does not cause any obvious symptoms and may go unnoticed for days.  In some cases, symptoms have even been mistaken for a bad case of the flu. The most common silent heart attack symptoms include:

  • Mild discomfort in the chest, arm or jaw which is alleviated after resting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Stomach pain or heart burn
  • Clamminess or sweating

Traditional heart attack symptoms may also vary slightly in women. Recent studies have found women often report some additional, more subtle symptoms which can go unnoticed causing a delay in medical treatment (the average women does not get help for approximately four hours after symptoms appear) because they assume their symptoms are caused by some other problem.

The most common symptoms reported by women following a heart attack are a sudden, severe fatigue, sweating, shortness of breath and pain in the neck, jaw or back and chest pain.

Most women lead busy, active lives and the demands of working, raising a family and running a house makes feeling tired the “norm.” It can be difficult to know when exhaustion is due to more than a hectic schedule. It is important to watch for sudden changes in energy level or worsening fatigue. Your fatigue may require prompt attention if the following occurs:

  • Feeling more tired than usual after a simple activity (making the bed) or regular workout
  • A “heavy” feeling in the chest even when at rest

Sweating or shortness of breath can also be common as women age. Shortness of breath may arise due to reduced activity level or gradual weight gain and hot flashes are common for postmenopausal women. These symptoms may be cause for concern if:

  • There is a sudden onset of shortness of breath and/ or a cold sweat without activity
  • Shortness of breath intensifies over time and with any amount of exertion
  • Shortness of breath is worse when laying back and improves when sitting upright
  • When it’s accompanied by other symptoms (chest pain or exhaustion)

Neck, jaw or back pain is another common complaint women should watch out for. This is especially true if the cause of the pain is unknown or if the pain starts and becomes worse with activity and goes away with rest. Pain near the left, lower side of the jaw is often reported and women may also experience pain in either arm, not just in the left.  In some cases, women reported experiencing symptoms for weeks prior to having a heart attack.

Incorporating healthy lifestyle habits can be an effective way to prevent heart disease and heart attacks from developing. Regular exercise and a balanced diet low in fat and salt help keep weight and cholesterol under control. Slow down and pay attention to your body. If you currently smoke, stop! Quitting smoking reduces the risk of heart disease by about 50% after a year.

It is important to seek medical treatment immediately if you think you may be experiencing a heart attack. Delaying help can cause other long-term health issues or damage to your heart and even death. To speak with a DMG Cardiologist about your heart health, schedule an appointment by visiting https://www.dupagemedicalgroup.com/services/cardiology/.

Topics and Subtopics: General Health & Women's Health

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