By Dr. Pamela Morris, MUSC Cardiologist, Women’s Heart Care Program
Last month, talk show host Rosie O’Donnell revealed that she had suffered a heart attack and was lucky to be alive. Like so many female heart attack victims, Rosie initially ignored her symptoms, and put off seeking help nearly 24 hours after her symptoms started.
Unfortunately, Rosie’s heart attack story is not that uncommon—many women don’t recognize their symptoms as signs of a heart attack, or they fail to seek emergency care. Many women ignore or dismiss their symptoms as something less worrisome like reflux (heartburn) or simply aging. When medical attention is declined, a heart attack can lead to damage of the heart muscle itself which can advance to heart failure and worse, death. Women often do not fully describe the symptoms they are experiencing as they do not want to be a burden on their families or friends. Women often internalize their symptoms and say, “there is no way I could be having a heart attack.” Speak up, know your family history and your individual risk factors:
Risk factors for heart disease
- Overweight and sedentary lifestyle
- High blood pressure (or hypertension)
- Cholesterol-high LDL (bad) or low HDL (good)
- Family history of heart disease in first-degree male relative age 55 or younger, or first-degree female relative age 65 or younger
Another challenge to female heart attack patients is that they might not present classic heart attack symptoms, like chest pain. Rosie said she had pain in both arms and nausea—but not necessarily chest pain. It’s important for women to recognize some of these other symptoms of heart attack:
Heart Attack Signs in Women
- Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back
- Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach
- Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort
- Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness
- As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain
If you have any of these signs, don’t wait more than five minutes before calling for help. Call 9-1-1 and get to a hospital right away.
Spread the word that heart disease is the number one killer of women. Be an activist, not a statistic. It starts with YOU!