Women: Understand the warning signs of heart attack

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

By: Dr. Scott T. Weslow

Younger women tend to shrug off early signs of heart attack, a new study reveals. That’s likely why they die from heart attacks more frequently than men in the same age group.


The preliminary study, published recently in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, interviewed 30 women aged 30-55 who had been hospitalized after a heart attack. The study sought to better understand the decision-making process for women who eventually seek medical attention for heart attack.


“Although this is a small study, it highlights an aspect of women’s health that is worth our attention, especially on the heels of American Heart Month,” says Scott T. Weslow, MD, an interventional cardiologist for Aurora BayCare Cardiology.


Study authors found many of the women ignored early warning signs of heart attack such as pain and dizziness. That revelation is important, considering more than 15,000 women under the age of 55 die from heart disease in the United States each year, making it a leading cause of death in that age group.


Five central themes were apparent among the study participants:

  • Heart attack symptoms varied substantially among the women in both nature and duration

  • The women inaccurately assessed personal risk of heart disease and commonly attributed symptoms to non-cardiac causes

  • Competing and conflicting priorities – such as work and family – influenced decisions about seeking medical care

  • Not all of the women received an immediate or complete assessment of their symptoms or a formal diagnosis of heart attack

  • They did not routinely access primary care, including steps to prevent heart disease


Understanding and addressing those themes can be instrumental in reinforcing ongoing efforts to raise heart health awareness among women in Northeast Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Dr. Weslow said.


“The key is to continually educate our female patients and their families as to the symptoms of heart attack in women,” he said. “They are oftentimes considerably different from what men experience and less dramatic than the ‘Hollywood’ heart attack we commonly see depicted on television.”


Heart attack symptoms in women include:

  • Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest

  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach

  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort

  • Cold sweat, nausea, lightheadedness or fatigue

Among the study’s additional findings was the notion that participants felt “concerned about initiating a false alarm in case their symptoms were due to something other than a heart attack.”


The study’s conclusion urges healthcare experts to identify factors that promote better cardiovascular knowledge, improved preventive healthcare, and prompt care-seeking behaviors among female populations.

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