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Heart attack symptoms in women: Are they different from those in men?

A heart attack is a serious health emergency that needs immediate medical attention. But, does it affect men and women differently?

Anatomically, hearts may look the same; however, there are important physiological differences between those of men and women. When a heart attack occurs, these distinctions affect the resultant symptoms as well. For instance, research suggests that during an attack, women are more likely to experience symptoms other than chest pain, such as pain in the neck, shortness of breath, dizziness, etc. However, chest pain remains one of the most widely reported symptoms of an attack.

Recognizing a heart attack

Heart attack symptoms depend on several factors and may show up differently based on gender, age, pre-existing conditions, etc. Some common early symptoms of heart attack are –

  • Mild chest pain
  • Pain in shoulders, neck, and jaw
  • Breathlessness
  • Anxiety
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue

As per the Society of Cardiovascular Patient Care, 50% of all people experiencing a heart attack experience early heart attack symptoms. It’s important to be aware of these early symptoms to be able get quick  treatment to prevent heart damage.

Heart attacks symptoms in men

On an average, men have heart attacks earlier in life than women. If there is a family history of heart disease or an individual history of smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, etc., the chances of getting a heart attack are higher.

Some commonly reported symptoms of a heart attack in men are –

  • Standard pain in the chest, a feeling of “pressure” like something heavy sits on the chest, with a squeezing sensation
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain or discomfort in the upper body – arms, back, neck, jaw
  • A feeling of dizziness or passing out
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat

For men, heart attack symptoms typically occur fast. Often, plaque build-up in the arteries leads to heart attacks; in men, the plaque suddenly ruptures, causing the body’s emergency response system to form a protective blood clot. This clot blocks arteries, causing a heart attack. What’s interesting is that, in men, such ruptures account for 75% of all heart attacks but, in women, only 55%. When this happens, the symptoms are obvious as opposed to women who show subtler signs of a heart attack.

Heart attacks symptoms in women

In recent years, scientists have discovered that heart attack symptoms can be different in women. Studies have found that the most frequently reported symptoms by don’t even include chest pain.

Common heart attack symptoms experienced by women are –

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Lightheadedness
  • Fatigue lasting for several days or sudden fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Jaw pain
  • Indigestion
  • Pain in the upper back, shoulder, or throat
  • Pain in the center of the chest, sometimes spreading up the arms

Women have unique risk factors

Women develop conditions that men cannot – PCOS, endometriosis, etc., all of which can increase the chances of having a heart attack. In fact, a study concluded that women suffering from endometriosis were up to 3 times more likely to have a heart attack!

What’s more, women with common conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, etc. are at greater risk for a heart attack than men with these conditions. In fact, it has been found that clinical depression, which is twice as common in women, actually doubles a woman’s risk of a heart attack. Unfortunately, many women’s symptoms go untreated, owing to a tendency to dismissing them and not seeing a doctor and putting families first. In fact, women’s symptoms are also often wrongly diagnosed.

It is known that women tend to have heart attacks later in life than. While the average age for a first heart attack in men is 65 in men, it is 72 in women. It is believed that women’s exposure to estrogen offers some extra protection against heart attacks, but only up until menopause. Once estrogen levels drop, this advantage goes away.

Women are less likely to survive heart attacks

According to studies, more women than men die due to heart attacks. This could be attributed to the fact that women take longer to visit the hospital, perhaps due to mild symptoms that don’t seem life-threatening. Because their heart attacks can be harder to diagnose, they’re also less likely to receive the right treatment.

Additionally, women receive less aggressive treatment after an attack. After surviving an attack, they are at greater risk for blood clots that can cause further heart attacks. However, they’re less likely to receive medication to prevent clots, which is why they are more likely to have a second attack within 12 months.

Prevent heart attacks with regular check-ups

Irrespective of your gender, you can take steps to reduce the risk of an attack. Get ample exercise, eat a nutritious, heart-healthy diet, maintain a healthy weight, and schedule regular check-ups to track blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels. Even though women and men may experience different heart attack symptoms, they ought to take the same steps to prevent heart attacks and increase well-being.

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