Would you recognise the symptoms of a heart attack if it happened to you or someone close to you? Heart attacks kill more than twice as many women as breast cancer every year, and yet women are considerably less likely to seek medical attention.
When asked to describe a heart attack, you might think of someone keeling over, clutching their chest. For men, this is often accurate, but when women suffer from heart attacks, they don't always experience 'classic' chest pain symptoms.
Heart disease is one of the most common killers of women worldwide – so knowing the signs and symptoms of a heart attack is essential. But research has shown that the first signs of a heart attack in women can differ greatly to men. Here's what to look out for:
Signs of a heart attack in women
Women tend to wait longer before calling emergency services after first experiencing heart attack symptoms, and this delay can dramatically reduce the chance of survival. According to the British Heart Foundation, the most common heart attack symptoms for women can include the following:
- Chest pain or discomfort: the most recognised symptom of a heart attack though not always present.
- Pain radiating: discomfort or acute pain in the arms, neck, jaw, stomach and back can all be symptoms of a heart attack.
- Indigestion or reflux: this is often ignored in the hope that it will pass.
- Sickness: sweaty, breathless or lightheaded with associated chest pain or discomfort and sickness can be a sign of a heart attack.
- Lethargy: a general feeling of being unwell or lethargic can also be an indicator of a heart attack when accompanied by chest pain or discomfort.
Why do heart attack signs differ for women?
Professor Joep Perk, a cardiologist from Linnaeus University, Sweden, has a theory about why the symptoms are so different. 'There is a tendency for women to have more heart attacks originating from the back of the heart, which explains their nausea and back pain symptoms,' says Perk.
Women also typically have a faster heart rate than men, hence the palpitations. Chest pain, conversely, is not a common heart attack symptom in women, thanks to higher levels of oestrogen. This hormone triggers the release of nitric oxide, which can reduce the feelings of pain.
'Women should not view cardiovascular disease (CVD) as a male disease,' says Dr Nick Townsend, from the University of Oxford. 'You need to consider your risk as much as you would other diseases, such as breast cancer.'
How to keep your heart healthy
Dr Sundip Patel, consultant cardiologist at London Bridge Hospital, recommends the following simple lifestyle adjustments women can do to keep their hearts healthy:
- Quit smoking: Smoking is actually worse for women than men in terms of increasing heart attack risk.
- Reduce your waistline: a condition called metabolic syndrome tends to have more of an adverse effect on heart disease risk for women than men, and managing your weight can make a huge difference.
- Exercise: Aim for at least 30 minutes a day. A brisk walk is just as good as pushing yourself in the gym. Plus, spending time outdoors in green spaces has been shown to boost mood, and low mood is associated with heart disease.
- Eat a Mediterranean diet: This type of diet is low in saturated fat, cholesterol and salt – which can push up blood pressure levels – a silent killer in terms of heart disease and stroke in women.
What to do in the event of a heart attack
If you think you or someone else might be experiencing a heart attack, follow these steps immediately:
- Call 999 emergency services for an ambulance.
- Identify if the person affected is having a heart attack or cardiac arrest. If a person is having a cardiac arrest, they will be unconscious and won't be breathing normally.
- If they are having a cardiac arrest, use a defibrillator if one is available or perform CPR.
- If you or the person affected is having a heart attack - the NHS and British Heart Foundation recommend that if aspirin is easily available and you are not allergic to it, you should chew it slowly.
- Do not attempt to move around and look for aspirin if it is not next to you. If you are with someone who is having a heart attack and the aspirin is not nearby, do not leave that person to go and find it.
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