Heart attacks in women

If you think breast cancer is the leading killer of women, think again. Heart disease kills more women than all forms of cancer combined, and it kills more women than men every year. 

Yet women often chalk up their symptoms to less life-threatening conditions, like acid reflux, the flu or normal aging. They’re shocked to learn they’ve had a heart attack.

Kathleen Murphy Battaglia of Chesapeake ate healthy foods and worked out nearly every day. So one evening when she had abdominal pain and bloating, she ignored it. Two days later when she experienced pain first in her jaw, then under her arm and finally in her chest, she tried lying down. When it didn’t go away, she called 9-1-1 but hung up before anyone answered.

“Fortunately,” she says, “they called me back, made me describe my symptoms and sent an ambulance.” Sure enough, she’d had a heart attack.

“Women need to have specific information so that they can be proactive in taking care of themselves if they are having heart problems,” says John Brush Jr., MD, Professor of Internal Medicine and Chief of Cardiology at EVMS.

February is American Heart Month. It’s important for women to know that they’re less likely than men to have chest pain during a heart attack and more likely to experience nausea, trouble breathing and pain in the jaw, arm or back.

The American Heart Association cites more unsettling facts:

  • Each year one in 31 women dies of breast cancer, but one in three women dies of heart disease, which kills approximately one woman every minute.
  • About 90 percent of women have one or more risk factors for developing heart disease.
  • Some risk factors for heart disease, such as premature birth and autoimmune conditions like lupus, are unique to women.
  • An overall increase in heart attacks among women is seen about 10 years after menopause.
  • Since 1984, more women than men have died each year from heart disease, and the gap between men and women’s survival continues to widen.

If you experience any of these signs or symptoms, call 9-1-1 and get to a hospital immediately:

  • Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
  • Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, dizziness or lightheadedness.

Dr. Brush says that in general, heart disease affects men at an earlier age than women, so it receives more attention in men, even though over the course of a lifetime, it affects more women. He advises women to talk with their doctors about risk factors and the lifestyle choices that can lower their risk.