How to spot a female heart attack

-Jan 8, Caroline Blight, Health -

We often view heart attacks and heart disease as a male condition. But do you know the symptoms to look out for in a female heart attack?

During your life, it’s likely that you may have experienced anxiety, or even panic attacks, which can incredibly scary, because they can seem like perhaps you’re having a heart attack. We’ve put together a guide for how to spot a heart attack – especially following the news that more women die from heart attacks than men.

If you had to picture the kind of person who was going to have a heart attack the chances are you’d imagine an obese, smoking, middle age man as we often view heart disease as a male condition. But do you know the symptoms to look out for in a female heart attack?

More women than men die from a heart attack. They are three times more likely to die of heart disease than breast cancer and the symptoms differ so greatly from those experienced by men that many women aren’t even aware they are having an attack. This delay in getting treatment can lead to irreparable damage or even death.

How many women have heart attacks in the UK?

More than 28,000 women die of a heart attack in the UK every year, half of whom are under 75 and  more women die from cardiovascular disease (heart attack and stroke) than men. Hospitals treat 68,000 women a year following a heart attack – an average of 186 women per day, or eight per hour.  In fact, heart disease is the biggest killer of women in Britain, second only to dementia.

“Heart disease is too often mistaken as a ‘man’s disease’ and it’s a dangerous misconception,” says Maureen Talbot from the British Heart Foundation. “We know that women tend to wait longer before calling 999 after first experiencing heart attack symptoms. This might be because women are less likely to recognise the symptoms, they’re reluctant to cause a fuss, or they don’t want to be embarrassed if it turns out that their situation isn’t serious. This delay can dramatically reduce your chance of survival.”

What is a heart attack?

A heart attack is the result of a blockage in a coronary artery caused by a build-up of fatty plaque; this restricts the flow of blood to the heart, or triggers a clot that cuts off the supply. The blockage can effect the heart’s rhythm which can lead to a cardiac arrest, during which the heart stops pumping blood around the body, or the blockage can prevent blood flowing to part of the heart – and the longer the blockage remains, the more permanent damage is done. 

Why do women delay getting medical attention for a heart attack?

Women tend not to seek medical help soon enough, as often they don’t realise they’re even having a heart attack, a factor in why a first heart attack is more likely to kill a woman than a man. “Rapid treatment is essential, and the aim is to restore blood flow to the affected part of the heart muscle as soon as possible,” adds Maureen. “This helps to limit the amount of damage to the heart.”

What are the specifically female symptoms of a heart attack?

When we think of a heart attack we think of a crushing pain in the left side of the chest radiating down the left arm with shortage of breath and nausea, rather than a less intense pain anywhere in the chest, or jaw or back or abdomen which is more typical for a woman. Sometimes women may only have abdominal pain or acute shortage of breath for no reason.

A study published in Circulation in 2014 found that seven out of ten women report their main symptom as ‘flu-like’ with no chest pain at all. Even an episode of nausea and vomiting without chest pain are symptoms. Some women struggle on for days before they see a doctor. Research shows women took an average of 54 hours – more than two days – before seeking medical help, compared with 16 hours for men.

Why are female heart attack symptoms different?

The less dramatic symptoms of an attack are thought to stem from the fact women’s arteries tend to fur up differently, the plaque is smooth where as in men it tends to be bumpy. So, when a lump of plaque breaks off in a man it creates the explosive, sudden symptoms we usually link to a heart attack. In women blockages occur more frequently in smaller, less central blood vessels, causing symptoms throughout the upper body.

How can women reduce their risk of heart attack?

Prevention is incredibly important; smoking doubles your risk of heart attack yet more young women smoke than young men now and fewer older women have quit smoking than their male counterparts. Only about one in four women in England does enough physical activity to protect their hearts – you need to do at least 2 hours and 30 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, like cycling or fast walking. And your body shape matters as well as your weight. If you tend to carry weight around your middle in an ‘apple’ shape your risk is increased, aim for a waistline of less than 80cm (31.5 inches). Binge drinking and drinking too many alcoholic units per week raises your risk and the hormonal changes of the menopause also make a heart attack more likely as does high blood pressure and diabetes.

If you think you could be at risk and want to track your progress to good heart health then a home monitor like Kardia Mobile by AliveCor which accurately tracks your heart rate, blood pressure and creates a heart profile personal to you. This can help you make moves to avoid a heart attack altogether.

This is intended as a guide for information only, if you’re ever in doubt about your health, you should always call for help and see a medical practitioner in person immediately.

If you’d like some tips for making exercise a habit, we’ve put together a list. And, if you’re doing dry January, did you know how healthy it is for your heart?

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