Caring Currents

Heartburn or Heart Attack? Women May Miss the Signs

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Recently I wrote about how nearly half of heart disease patients aren't familiar with the signs of heart attack. Now I'd like to point out a related issue: Women, especially those under the age of 55, may miss or ignore heart attack warning signs.

In a study presented last month at the American Heart Association's Scientific Forum on Quality of Care and Outcomes Research in Cardiovascular Disease and Stroke, researchers interviewed 30 women who'd suffered heart attacks at a young age (average age 48). Most of the women didn't realize they were having heart attacks, attributing their symptoms instead to indigestion, fatigue, or stress.

Why are young women less likely to recognize a heart attack? Here are some of the reasons given by the women in this study:

  • They thought they were too young to have a heart attack.
  • They had atypical symptoms, such as jaw or neck pain, abdominal discomfort, nausea, or fatigue.
  • They were afraid their doctors would dismiss their concerns.

In her book From the Heart: A Woman's Guide to Living Well with Heart Disease , Kathy Kastan tells a very similar story. At the age of 41, Kastan didn't think the symptoms she experienced when exercising could possibly be due to heart disease. She'd been having shortness of breath and intermittent pain along her left arm and back for months before she saw a cardiologist. After several misdiagnoses, she underwent bypass surgery -- a full year after her symptoms first began.

Kastan's story really brings home the need for women to be vigilant for signs of heart disease, the number one killer of American women.

What are the heart attack symptoms that are more likely to occur in women?

  • Nausea or feelings of "indigestion"
  • Discomfort or pain in the shoulder, neck, or jaw
  • Dizziness, weakness, clamminess, lightheadedness, or fatigue
  • A sense of impending doom

You might want to print out this list and post it on your refrigerator, right next to the list of symptoms I posted last week. I'm turning 40 this year, and while I'm pretty sure my heartburn is just that, I'll be seeing my doctor next week just to make sure.

Logo courtesy of The Heart Truth campaign. The Red Dress is a trademark of DHHS.