A Woman's Guide to Heart Attacks

How to Take Charge of Your Heart Health

Senior with Chest Pain
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When it comes to heart disease, men and women have something in common.

In the United States coronary heart disease (CHD), when plaque builds up in your arteries, is the leading cause of death for men and women. It might surprise you, however, that heart disease and heart attacks claim the lives of more American women than men each year and pose a greater threat to women than all forms of cancer combined.

The Difference Between Men and Women When it Comes to Heart Attacks

What men and women with heart disease don't have in common are the "classic" symptoms of a heart attack, which can differ greatly between genders. If you don't know these differences, you might not realize you're having one. Recognizing your symptoms is very important because prompt treatment can save lives while, on the contrary, delaying treatment could be fatal.

Here's what you can do to take charge of your heart health.

Check-Ups Women Should Have for Heart Health

If you are a woman over the age of 18, you should have your blood pressure checked annually. If you are a woman over the age of 45, have your blood cholesterol and blood sugar checked annually in addition to blood pressure.

If your family has a history of heart disease before the age of 60, especially with female relatives, ask your doctor about performing these tests at an earlier age.

You and your doctor may also want to consider additional heart health tests, such as the exercise stress test, which is typically done on a treadmill.

Common Heart Attack Symptoms for Men and Women

While men and women can experience some of the same heart attack symptoms, they can experience different symptoms.

When having a heart attack, both women and men may experience symptoms like:

  • Squeezing chest pain or pressure
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Tightness in chest
  • Pain spreading to shoulders, neck or arm

That said, heart attack symptoms that are more likely to be experienced by women than by men, include:

  • Indigestion or gas-like pain
  • Dizziness, nausea, or vomiting
  • Unexplained weakness or fatigue
  • Discomfort/pain between shoulder blades
  • Recurring chest discomfort
  • Sense of impending doom

Be Proactive at the Doctor's Office

Don't be shy about your heart health at the doctor's office. Instead, be proactive and start a discussion with your health care providers:

  • Ask for a thorough assessment of your heart disease risk factors, including your cholesterol and blood sugar levels, blood pressure and how much you exercise. Factors including smoking history, your weight are also important to discuss with your doctor.
  • Create a plan with your doctor to reduce or eliminate your risk factors.
  • Ask if you should have an electrocardiogram (ECG).
  • Ask to learn about heart attack symptoms, then discuss these with your family and friends, along with the importance of calling 9-1-1 if these symptoms occur.
  • Make sure your provider answers any and all questions you have about your medications or any special instructions you've been given.
  • Discuss when and if you need to have follow-up tests.
  • Before a heart attack strikes you or your loved one, ask your doctor about the benefits of taking aspirin at the first sign of heart attack symptoms.

Food and Lifestyle Change You Should Make for Heart Health

  • To help prevent heart disease, avoid foods high in saturated fat or containing hydrogenated oils, also known as trans fats. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends eating less than 20 grams of saturated fats per day.
  • Purchase (or better yet, grow) enough vegetables to eat 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables each day.
  • Instantly insert more exercise into your day by taking the stairs instead of riding the elevator, and parking farther away from the store in good weather.
  • Don't smoke! If you do smoke, quit. Your health, not just your heart, will thank you.
  • Check out nearby cardiac rehabilitation centers and community programs to help you stop smoking, get regular exercise, lose weight and reduce stress.

When to Call 911

If you are experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, call 9-1-1. To minimize the possible damage to your heart, go to the emergency room immediately.


Medline Plus: Exercise Stress Test (2015)

National Institutes of Health; National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. How Does Heart Disease Affect Women?