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Heart Disease Signs May Be Subtle in Women

Wednesday, December 07, 2022 1:02 PM

Despite the fact that heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States, only half of American women recognize the significant threat; many believing that breast cancer poses a bigger risk.

Female middle-aged doctor using stethoscope to examine patient.Additionally, the symptoms of heart disease in women can be less obvious and different than those in men. Raising awareness of the real risk of heart disease and educating women about symptoms and risk factors is essential, said Charu Gupta, MD, a cardiologist with the NorthShore Cardiovascular Institute.

“Nine in ten women have risk factors for heart disease, and 80% of related deaths are preventable,” Dr. Gupta said.

Unfortunately, women tend to be diagnosed with heart disease later in life than men, and standard tests may not be as successful in identifying heart disease in women.

Major risk factors for heart disease include history of preeclampsia or gestational diabetes, family history of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, smoking, sleep apnea and high blood pressure. While not all risk factors are modifiable, the majority can be addressed with lifestyle changes including losing weight, adopting a healthy diet and exercise, quitting smoking and managing stress.

Recognizing and responding quickly to signs of a heart attack are critical for successful treatment.

“On average, women take two to four hours longer than men to respond to heart attack symptoms,” said Dr. Gupta. This likely contributes to the fact that men have a better chance of surviving a cardiac event than women.

Some women will experience multiple symptoms before a heart attack, and others may experience none. However, it is important to be aware of the following possible signs of a heart attack:

  • Crushing chest pain
  • Pressure or pain that spreads to shoulders, neck, upper back, jaw or arms
  • Dizziness or nausea
  • Clammy sweats or heart flutters
  • Unexplained feelings of anxiety, fatigue or weakness
  • Stomach or abdominal pain
  • Shortness of breath and difficulty breathing

In some cases, women have found that their symptoms may be attributed to other health problems like indigestion or anxiety. Dr. Gupta stresses the importance for all women to educate themselves, talk to their doctors, advocate for themselves and ask questions.

“I urge all women to take control of their risk factors and arm themselves with the best information and prevention strategies available,” said Dr. Gupta.