While waiting somwhere recently, I read a magazine featurette of a woman who had experienced symptoms of fatigue, shortness of breath, and dizziness. She mostly brushed them off, and continued on with her day. As they got progressively worse, her husband encouraged her to see a doctor, who then advised her to head to the hospital because the tests seemed slightly off. She waited at the hospital. (And waited.) While waiting, a man presented with a “typical” heart attack symptom of chest pain and was rushed ahead of her. After hours of waiting she was finally seen by a doctor, where, after more testing, determined that yes, indeed, she had a heart attack.
After doing a bit of research online, it appears that this woman’s story is not unusual. Women are less likely to report heart attack symptoms, and when they DO report them, they are less likely to be diagnosed with a heart attack. Even when presenting with the same symptoms as men, women’s symptoms are more often diagnosed as “anxiety” than as heart disease.
In a study at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, 230 doctors were given cases of men & women with identical symptoms; only half of the cases included “feeling anxious” or “having a stressful experience”. In the cases where stress/anxiety was included, doctors diagnosed heart disease in 56% of men compared with 18% (just eighteen percent!) of women. Men were referred to cardiologists twice as often as women and cardiac meds were prescribed to half the men, vs. 13% of the women. Gender bias at work, folks.
A big part of the problem may be that men’s & women’s heart attack symptoms can differ dramatically. Fewer than 30% of female heart attack suffers reported having chest pain prior to their heart attack, and 43% reported having no chest pain during any phase of their heart attack. NO CHEST PAIN. And yet, according to a study done by the National Institue of Health (“Women’s Early Warning Symptoms of Acute Myocardial Infarction” Circulation. 2003) MOST doctors still consider chest pain as the most significant symptom of a heart attack in both men AND women.
I’m not sure what to make of this. Is it possible that the popular culture belief that heart attack = chest pain (watch any TV show or movie where someone is suffering a heart attack – they immediately grab their chest & collapse, right?) is so ingrained that even doctors don’t know the facts? Yikes.
There was a recent survey of 500 doctors, in which only 8% of family doctors were aware that men’s & women’s heart attack symptoms differ. And (are you ready?) only 17% of CARDIOLOGISTS (you know, HEART doctors) were aware of the fact that more women die from heart disease than men. What?
Ladies, we have a problem here. Women are dying of heart attacks because they aren’t recognizing they’re having them, the people around them aren’t recognizing they’re having them, and even their doctors aren’t recognizing they’re having them.
It’s time for some education.
Women, men, doctors, everyone needs to be aware that the symptoms of heart attack in women can be DIFFERENT than the symptoms of heart attacks in men. We need to change the perception that chest-clutching is the main indicator of heart attack.
Here’s how the symptoms stack up:
Women’s Top Three Heart Attack Symptoms
Shortness of Breath
Women also commonly experience these symptoms leading up to & during a heart attack:
Men’s Top Three Heart Attack Symptoms
Discomfort or pain in the arm or back
Shortness of Breath
If you experience ANY of these symptoms, don’t ignore them. Tell a loved one, call a doctor. Don’t shrug it off, don’t just soldier on. It may not be anxiety or indigestion. 1 in 17 of you will have a heart attack before you turn 60. That’s less than 25 years away for me, and I don’t particularly like those odds.
So, now you know the differences. But what can we do to improve our odds at suffering cardiovascular disease? While heart disease is the number one killer of women, it’s also one of the most preventable. The basics:
Stop smoking. (21.2 million US women smoke. Seriously?)
Lower your blood pressure. (33% of US women have hypertension)
Exercise. (at least 20 minutes a day; even walking counts – just move)
Maintain a healthy weight. (62% of women are overweight, including 33% who are obese)
Control your diabetes. (7 – 10 million US women have diabetes)
Don’t drink too much. (limit yourself to one alcoholic drink/day)
Reduce stress. (Meditate. Write. Yoga. Do something you like, just for you.)
For more information on heart disease in women: