Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States, killing 299,578 women in a 2017 — or about one in every five female deaths. A heart attack occurs when the blood flow to the heart is blocked. The blockage is most often a buildup of fat, cholesterol and other substances, which form a plaque in the arteries that feed the heart.
A heart attack can be fatal, but treatment has improved dramatically. It’s been common knowledge for years that if a person is experiencing chest pains or feels a tingling in their right arm, they may be having a heart attack. But recent studies have shown that women may exhibit other symptoms as well as — or instead of — chest pains.
According to the VIRGO (Variation in Recovery: Role of Gender on Outcomes) study, the majority of women presented with some chest pains. However, 61% of women showed other signs of pain or discomfort, such as pain in the jaw, neck, arms, or between the shoulder blades. Other symptoms included:
- Fatigue and weakness that may last for days
- Shortness of breath (with or without chest discomfort)
- Dizziness, nausea, lightheadedness, vomiting
- Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, neck, jaw or stomach
- Upper back pressure
The problem with presenting with non-chest related pain is that a heart attack can be misdiagnosed. If you are noticing any of these symptoms, it’s best to go to straight to the hospital or dial 911 for assistance. If you are making your own way to the emergency room, have someone drive you. Only in the most dire of circumstances should you attempt to drive yourself.
Reducing the risk
To lower your chances of getting heart disease, the CDC recommends paying attention to the following:
- Know and keep track of your blood pressure. High blood pressure has no symptoms, so it’s important to have your blood pressure checked regularly.
- Talk to your doctor or health care team about whether you should be tested for diabetes. Having uncontrolled diabetes raises your risk of heart disease.
- Quit smoking.
- Discuss checking your blood cholesterol and triglycerides with your doctor.
- Keep an eye on your weight. Obesity raises your risk of heart disease.
- Limit how much alcohol you drink.
- Manage stress levels by finding healthy ways to cope with stress. Exercise is recommended.