Women and Heart Attacks

Symptoms for heart attack are often different for women and men. Here’s what you need to know.

Question: As a woman over 50, with a family history of heart problems, are there any symptoms that should prompt me to go to the ER right away? And do they differ from what symptoms my husband might experience?

Dr. Zachary Levine answers: Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in North America. Recently, Rosie O’Donnell, who has a history of heart problems, didn’t recognize the symptoms and hesitated to go to the ER. The next day, she saw a cardiologist and was told she had suffered a heart attack. Rosie was lucky, but this is why it is wise to be educated about the symptoms of a heart attack. Women are more likely to experience a hot or burning sensation in the back, shoulders, arms or jaw. They may also experience nausea, vomiting, indigestion, shortness of breath or extreme fatigue without any chest pain.

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For men, the classic symptoms are retrosternal (behind the breast bone) pressure or squeezing sensation (most common symptom), shortness of breath, nausea, sweating and lightheadedness. Any of these symptoms deserve investigation. People with diabetes are more likely to have silent (i.e., without chest pain) heart attacks. These symptoms can appear due to things other than heart attack. Don’t try to self-diagnose – it’s the doctor’s job to rule out dangerous causes for these symptoms.

Risk factors are family history of heart attack younger than 55, smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure and elevated “bad” cholesterol (LDL, triglycerides). If you have any of these, speak with your doctor about how you can better control them, and pay extra attention if you experience any of the symptoms noted above. Whether you’re male or female, if you experience any persistent chest discomfort (not necessarily pain, and it may be in the back, jaw or arm), shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea or vomiting, call 911 for an ambulance – don’t drive yourself. If it is a heart attack, the sooner you get to the hospital, the better your chances are for a full recovery.

Dr. Zachary Levine is a physician at the McGill University Health Centre and medical correspondent for AM 740 (a ZoomerMedia property).