doctor listens to heartHeart disease remains the leading cause of death in men and women. Women should be especially mindful: one in 16 women aged 20 and older receive a coronary heart disease diagnosis and one in five women die from heart disease. 

Despite these numbers –and the fact that women make most of the healthcare decisions for the household – women can at times put their health last and most often consider their symptoms as non-cardiac. At the MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Long Beach Medical Center we want to continue to bring awareness of women’s heart health to the forefront.

Difference in heart attack symptoms for men and women

Chest tightening, sweating and pain in the shoulder and arm are the most well-known symptoms of a heart attack. For years, many believed these were the only symptoms to look out for, but as we learn more about cardiovascular disease, we find that there are significant differences in how men and women experience a heart attack. Women also present with chest pain but have at least three other symptoms along with chest pain that tends to dilute their presentation.

Warning signs in men and women

Men also experience heart attacks earlier in life compared to women. Men exhibit the following symptoms during a heart attack:

  • Chest pain/tightening that feels like an “elephant” sitting on your chest. Also, a squeezing sensation that comes and goes or remains constant.
  • Upper body pain in the arms, left shoulder, back, neck, jaw, or stomach
  • Rapid heartbeats
  • Indigestion
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cold sweat
Warning signs specifically in women

Many times, women mask chest pain symptoms of having heart disease with other possible cardiac symptoms until they have a major cardiovascular event, like a heart attack. One reason women don’t recognize the signs of having a heart attack is because the symptoms are not the usual cardiac symptoms of chest pain, but they are more nonspecific as mentioned below. Many women experience symptoms of a heart attack more than a month before the attack occurs. Here are the symptoms women experience:

  • Chest pain that feels like tightness or pressure
  • Extreme or unusual fatigue
  • Throat and jaw pain
  • Pain or discomfort in the upper abdomen that could feel like indigestion or heartburn
  • Pain, discomfort, or a tingling sensation in one or both arms
  • Upper back pain that may have a burning, tingling, or pressure-like feeling
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Nausea and vomiting

Several cardiac risks affect women more than men specifically diabetes, smoking, obesity and family history of premature coronary artery disease. Some risk factors are inherited in women like pregnancy related complications, menopause, and inflammatory diseases. We need to recognize these nontraditional and traditional risk factors early on and act on them to reduce the risk of coronary artery disease. To all the women out there – Known your numbers annually!

  • Know your blood pressure numbers, get checked regularly with goal <130/80 mmHg
  • Know your cholesterol levels LDL <100 (LDL <70 if Diabetic)
  • Know your weight (goal BMI <25)
  • Exercise regularly with fast walking (150 mins a week or 30 mins a day for 5 days a week)
  • Know your calorie intake (Heart healthy diet rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and lean meats)
  • Quit smoking
  • Know your family history for heart conditions and diabetes
  • Limit your alcohol intake
  • Manage stress levels

At the MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Long Beach Medical Center, we help patients determine their risks for cardiovascular disease and provide them with valuable preventive strategies. We also provide individualized screening programs to measure risks for heart attack.