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June 2004 Issue
Women’s Heart Health: It’s Quite Different from Men’s
by Michael Fick
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Everyone with an aging, supersized, or sedentary male in their lives should know the classic (i.e., men’s) heart attack symptoms. Any man or woman experiencing some of these, especially pain, should immediately call an ambulance. Whether the ambulance crew declares it a non-emergency and treats it on the spot or gets the victim to the hospital in time to save his/her life, these symptoms warrant the call:
  • Mild to intense pain (or pressure, tightness, burning, or heavy weight) in chest, shoulders, neck, jaw or arms.
  • Lightheadedness, fainting, sweating, nausea or shortness of breath.
  • Anxiety, nervousness and/or cold, sweaty skin.
  • Paleness or pallor.
  • Increased or irregular heart rate.
  • Feeling of impending doom.

But what should women do for simpler but unexplained sudden shortness of breath, weakness/fatigue, body aches, overall feeling of illness, mild heartburn, and/or an odd feeling or mild discomfort in the chest or back? Take a nap? Prepare for a week of flu? Take Tums or Maalox? Schedule a checkup if any chest pains appear? Take some Midol? Just suck it up as women tend to do?

If you’re female, call 911! Those are classic symptoms of a full-blown, potentially fatal heart attack in women. Pain, schmain; that’s for guys. Less than a third of women studied report discomfort, let alone chest pain, before their heart attacks, and nearly half reported no chest pain even during their heart attacks. Lucky you, ladies: you get to die in comfort relative to your men. Unlucky you: you may die because neither you, witnesses, nor some doctors know the distinct differences between men’s and women’s cardiovascular systems and heart failure modes. Lucky you: if you’re paying attention, you may notice symptoms a month before your heart attack, get treatment, avert the heart attack, and live extra decades … if you see an informed physician. Nearly all women heart patients feel advance symptoms, but many doctors don’t take those warning signs seriously because most of them rely on chest pain as the definitive symptom. That’s part of the reason fewer symptomatic women than men receive heart-protective medication.

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