Heart Attacks Aren’t Just for Men
Many people think of the stereotypical heart attack victim as a male in his 50s or 60s. But by that age, women are just as likely to have a heart attack or stroke as men.
Women who do suffer heart attacks also tend to have more complications from the event, including heart failure and disruptions of normal heart rhythm, known as arrhythmias. In many cases, these complications are life-threatening for the women who experience them.
Kristin Newby, M.D., associate professor of medicine in the division of cardiology at Duke University Medical Center, says that since many women do not exhibit the classic warning signs of a male heart attack, they may not even be aware they're experiencing one. Describing these so-called 'atypical' symptoms, she says, "They may come in with fatigue or shortness of breath or nausea or pain in the shoulder or jaw, whereas men are far more likely to have pressure on the chest, the 'elephant sitting on the chest,' the more classic description of a heart attack."
Newby says that while women have lower rates of heart attack and stroke before menopause, by age 50 and afterward their rates of heart disease are equal to men's. As for risk factors, she says they are also virtually the same for both sexes. There is, however, one exception.
"Women with diabetes have three to five times the likelihood of coronary disease as men in terms of how strong a risk factor diabetes is. For other risk factors, such as smoking and high cholesterol, there's little difference between men and women."
Even though heart disease kills 10 times more women over age 50 than breast cancer, Newby says there's historically been far less attention given to the problem, both in the medical profession and in the media.
"Breast cancer is a terrifying disease," she says. "It has a lot bigger stigma and a lot more concern than heart disease traditionally."
Newby says if a woman is experiencing unusual pressure in the chest or any other symptoms, she should not ignore the warning.
"If any of these symptoms are unusual for you," she says, "you should call 911 and come to the emergency room immediately."