Dr Ambrose

Did you know women often experience heart attack symptoms differently than men?

The leading cause of death for women in the United States is heart disease, and the statistics are sobering. Heart disease kills one out of every five women each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and heart disease is particularly prevalent in women over 35 years of age in our region.

What makes heart disease so deadly for women? A significant reason is that many women do not experience the “classic” symptoms of a heart attack: severe chest pressure and pain in the left arm. Rather, women may experience symptoms that resemble acid reflux, the flu or aging and ignore the warning signs until it’s too late.

“We still have some work to do when it comes to raising awareness about heart disease in women,” said Jay Ambrose, MD, FACC, Cardiologist at Penn Highlands Healthcare. “Only about half of women recognize that heart disease is their number one killer, and many women may not experience the symptoms we associate with a heart attack.”

While women can experience the crushing chest pain that is typical of heart attacks in men. They can also suffer a heart attack without any chest pain. Instead, women may experience shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, lightheadedness, clammy skin, fainting, cold sweats, unusual fatigue, inability to sleep or pain in one or both arms, upper back, neck or jaw.

“If you experience these symptoms, it is critical that you call 911 immediately. Don’t wait to see how you feel in 15 minutes. Don’t chalk it up to indigestion. And don’t drive yourself to the hospital. Emergency responders can begin life-saving treatment before you reach the hospital,” said Dr. Ambrose.

Knowing the symptoms of heart attacks in women is especially important if you’re at an increased risk for heart disease. If you have high blood pressure, diabetes, are overweight, do not receive adequate physical activity, drink alcohol or smoke, you are at higher risk. In fact, half of all people in the United States have at least one risk factor for heart disease.

You can lower your risk for a heart attack by regularly checking your blood pressure, making healthy food decisions, exercising regularly, limiting your alcohol intake, managing your stress and quitting smoking.

Most importantly, talk to your primary care provider about your family history, risk factors and the steps you can take to reduce the threat to your health. Your primary care provider can also review the symptoms of a heart attack with you.

“You should regularly refresh your memory about the symptoms of a heart attack. It might just save your life or the life of someone else,” said Dr. Ambrose.

Penn Highlands cardiologists, cardiac surgeons and heart health experts treat all kinds of heart problems from chronic conditions, such as congestive heart failure, to emergency conditions, such as heart attacks. For more information, visit www.phhealthcare.org/heartcare.