A heart attack occurs when blood flow to a section of heart muscle becomes blocked. If the flow of blood isn’t restored quickly, the section of heart muscle becomes damaged from lack of oxygen and begins to die.
Cardiovascular disease claims more female lives than breast cancer, accidents and diabetes combined. Worldwide, heart disease is the number one killer of women.
Heart Attacks can affect women of all ages. It is especially prevalent after menopause. Coronary artery disease rates in women after menopause are 2 to 3 times those of women the same age before menopause. Heart attack is especially dangerous among women. Although women are about as likely as men to have a heart attack, they are more likely to die within a year after their first heart attack.
Women tend to have “atypical” symptoms that are actually signs of a heart attack. As a result, it may be harder for women to recognize they are having a heart attack and to get treatment immediately. Physicians may also have a hard time diagnosing a heart attack in women because of the atypical symptoms women are more likely to have. Women’s heart attacks may be more damaging or associated with more severe medical complications, possibly because of the underreporting and late diagnosis that may result from presenting with atypical symptoms.
Compared with male heart attack patients, women are usually about 10 years older at the time of their first attack. At that age, they are more likely to have medical complications or conditions that could interfere with a full recovery. At the more advanced age, women are more likely to have conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure (hypertension). They are also more likely to have developed complications from long-term habits such as smoking or excessive alcohol use. It is important to note that, while women are more likely to suffer a heart attack after menopause, younger women can get heart attacks that are just as life-threatening.
Women have a smaller heart and coronary arteries than men, which makes some diagnostic and therapeutic procedures more difficult. Non-invasive imaging of the heart may be difficult due to the interference of breast tissues.
A number of risk factors increase a woman’s chance of developing coronary artery disease (CAD) and having a heart attack.
The warning signs of a heart attack are:
Unless a woman is familiar with these symptoms, she may delay getting to the hospital. By the time a woman decides to seek medical attention, severe damage to the heart may already have occurred. When in doubt, chew a “regular” aspirin (not acetaminophen) if you are not allergic or don't have an ulcer. Aspirin can greatly reduce the chance of dying from a heart attack.
When meeting with a healthcare professional during an emergency, women should communicate the nature of the apparent health crisis and their need for tests (e.g., blood tests and an EKG) to be run as soon as possible. These may include tests measuring cardiac enzymes and C-reactive protein. Women who are concerned about their heart health are encouraged to seek a second opinion if they are not satisfied with the first.
Once a heart attack has been diagnosed, treatment is generally the same for both men and women. It is important that treatment be sought as quickly as possible. Rapid treatment can reduce the muscle damage associated with a heart attack.
For both women and men, the best strategy for preventing heart attacks is to make lifestyle changes that help prevent the main cause of heart attacks: coronary artery disease.