Why Gender Matters in Heart Attacks

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While a heart is a heart in terms of anatomy and functioning, it absolutely matters if the organ is in the chest of a man or a woman. Historically, most heart disease research has focused on men. Because women have different heart disease risk factors than men do, doctors, women, and their family members have been less successful in recognizing heart disease early and putting the necessary heart attack prevention measures in place. Only in recent decades have cardiac researchers learned that when it comes to heart disease and serious cardiac events, women have different care needs and require different heart attack prevention strategies.

Women Aren’t Aware of the Problem

Heart disease is responsible for the greatest proportion of deaths among men and women, and one in three deaths among women in the US are due to heart disease. However, a 2012 study by the American Heart Association found that more than half of women didn’t know that the leading cause of death for women was heart disease. Among black and Hispanic women, who are at a higher risk than white women, just over a third were aware of the risk.

There are two problems with this lack of awareness:

  • Not knowing that they’re at risk for heart disease makes it less likely that women will prioritize healthy lifestyle habits for prevention.
  • Women also may not identify the symptoms of a heart attack if it occurs.

Women Are More Sensitive to Certain Risk Factors for CHD

Risk factors for heart disease in women can be related to genetics, lifestyle, and other determinants. In particular, heart disease is often related to other health issues. However, the amount of risk that other health issues contribute to the risk of developing heart disease is different for women and men. For example, cigarette smoking raises a woman’s risk of coronary artery disease by 25% more than it would for a man who smokes cigarettes. If a woman has diabetes, she is at a 44% greater risk for cardiovascular disease overall than a man with diabetes. Because women also lag behind men in getting the recommended amount of exercise, they are at a disadvantage in terms of reducing heart disease risk.

Women’s Heart Attack Symptoms Can Be Different

While most of us have learned that a heart attack is characterized by acute chest pain, this isn’t always the case for women. In fact, less than 15% of women report chest pain during a heart attack. Women are more likely to feel fatigue and shortness of breath, and any chest pain can often feel like a duller tightness or ache. Feeling nauseous or dizzy and experiencing cold sweats or heaviness in the arms are other common heart attack symptoms that go unrecognized by women. In addition, women are more likely to have what’s known as a silent heart attack, which has no symptoms or symptoms that don’t appear serious or related to the heart.

How We Can Reduce Women’s Heart Attack Risk

A healthy diet and regular physical activity are just as important for women as they are for men. But in addition to focusing on a healthy lifestyle, it’s especially important for women to be aware of the symptoms of a heart attack, get regular health screenings, and bring up any concerns with their doctors. The American Heart Association’s Go Red campaign provides resources for women and their doctors that can help them identify the early signs of heart disease and the immediate signs of a heart attack, as well as information for preventing heart disease from developing in the first place.