Ladies, listen up! It could be your heart talking

How do you know if you are having a heart attack? Well, for women, it can be hard to know for sure. Women, it turns out,  do not always have the classic symptoms of a heart attack – such as chest pain, heaviness, pressure, or tightness. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) confirms this. Women are far more likely to present without chest pain or discomfort. In fact, of the more than 1 million patients included in the study, about one in three had no chest pain at all when they presented to the hospital. Among women, that number was even higher with 42% of all women having no chest pain/discomfort, a number much higher than in the men in the study (30%). This was particularly true of younger women (< 45 years old) with heart attacks.

The study also shows that both men and women having a heart attack who come in without classic symptoms of chest pain are more likely to do poorly. This is in part due to the fact that these patients had associated conditions which raise their risk (such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and active smoking).

What does this mean for you?

1. “I’m just a little nauseous, lightheaded, and sweaty. I can’t be having a heart attack.” Be aware of all the symptoms of a heart attack. Although chest discomfort (including pain, pressure, tightness, burning, aching, or indigestion) is still the most common symptom of a heart attack, all patients should be aware of the other symptoms you might feel. They include:

  • Chest discomfort (or pain, pressure, tightness, heaviness, burning, or aching)
  • Arm, neck, or jaw discomfort
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea/vomiting or indigestion
  • Lightheadedness
  • Sweating

All patients, but women in particular, need to be aware that these non-classic symptoms may be the sign of a heart attack.

2. “But I’m only 49 years old. I can’t be having a heart attack.” Yes, heart attacks are less common in younger adults, but they can happen at any age. The JAMA study shows that although younger men and women are less likely to have heart attacks, when they occur in younger individuals, the outcomes can be far worse. Young women and men with heart disease fare far worse than older adults. If you have any of the symptoms noted above, you need to get checked out right way.

3. “I’m a woman. Aren’t men more likely to have heart attacks.” Again, true. But heart disease remains the #1 killer of women. In fact, more women die of heart disease than all of the next four major causes of death combined, including all forms of cancer. Thanks to organizations like the American Heart Association and others, heart disease is in women starting to get the press attention it should. The AHA’s ‘Go Red for Women’ campaign is helping raise awareness to help empower women to take charge of their heart health (see for more information).

4. “How can I keep myself healthy and prevent a heart attack?” The most important thing you can do is take a good look at your life and make the changes that can keep you healthy.

  • Eat right, eat real! A diet low in saturated fat and chock full of real food (before anyone else gets their hands on it…), like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is good for your heart.
  • Move! So what if you can’t do 30 minutes five days a week. Some physical activity is better than no activity. Do whatever you love and you’ll love what you do. It doesn’t have to be walking. Take a dance class, play golf (and don’t take a cart), climb the stairs in your home, bike, whatever. Just move!
  • Stop stressing out! Figure out what’s driving you crazy and fix it. Stress is bad for the heart (and for the rest of you…).

Talk to your doctor. Let’s get healthy.

(for more information about the recent article, see this video featuring my colleague, Dr. Joanne Foody, on CBC news.

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