Cardiovascular diseases, including coronary heart disease and heart attacks, are the leading cause of death in the United States and many other developed countries. Each year in the U.S. alone, nearly 700,000 people die from heart disease, split almost equally among men and women.
What are the signs of an unhealthy heart? Many people don’t realize that signs of heart disease in women can differ from those in men.
An alarming new finding is that women often don’t realize they have heart disease or that they’re at risk for suffering from a heart attack.
Study Findings: Signs of Heart Disease in Women Often Missed
A May 2022 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that heart disease in women is often undiagnosed and under-treated, and at times it’s even dismissed by health care providers. This is especially true for women of color, who typically wait longer to be seen by physicians.
Based on data from 29 million emergency room sessions, women seem more likely to ignore signs of heart disease or a heart attack and to wait longer to receive help when they do notice symptoms. When women do seek professional help for signs of heart problems, such as by visiting the emergency room, they are less likely to be admitted to the hospital or to be treated quickly.
Why is this the case? It’s believed that women who have heart attacks are less likely than men to experience obvious symptoms, such as sharp chest pains.
Women with heart issues report experiencing symptoms that can be attributed to other health problems but missed when it comes to indicating cardiovascular problems.
For example, shortness of breath, cold sweats, fatigue and jaw and back pain seem to be common among women suffering from heart issues, which can lead doctors to delay identifying and treating the underlying problem.
What It Means
About one in every five deaths among adult women in the U.S. is caused by heart disease. The earlier it’s detected, the less likely heart disease is to lead to a heart attack or death.
This means that early detection and intervention are critical for saving lives.
How do you detect early heart disease?
Experts recommend that women or men with heart disease risk factors, plus symptoms such as pain, get help right away if they notice symptoms appearing or changing.
The study also points out: “Obtaining an electrocardiography test within 10 minutes of arrival to the ER is a Class I recommendation for patients with chest pain, because electrocardiography testing can aid in the early diagnosis and treatment of AMI (Acute myocardial infarctions).”
Young women with chest pain should not delay seeking help immediately for problems such as sudden pain, fatigue or palpitations.
Medical staff should be aware that women are less likely to be triaged as immediate/emergent and more likely to experience longer wait times compared with men when they do visit an ER.
The bottom line: It’s crucial that all people suffering from the same symptoms (such as chest pains) be treated with care right away, which can help prevent complications and save lives.
Symptoms of Heart Disease in Women
About one in 16 women over the age of 20 living in the U.S. has coronary heart disease.
How does a woman know if she has heart problems? The most common signs of heart disease in women include:
- Chest pains, also called angina, which can range from dull to heavy to sharp (although the study above found that chest pain is less likely to be attributed to heart disease in women, especially young women and women of color, than in men)
- Abdominal and back pain
- Neck, jaw or throat pain
Other symptoms and warning signs that are less common include:
- Indigestion, nausea, heartburn and vomiting
- Arrhythmia/heart palpitations, which feels like fluttering in the chest
- Shortness of breath
- Swelling of the feet, ankles, legs, abdomen or neck veins
What are the first signs of a weak heart?
Often they include fatigue and weakness; swelling in the legs, ankles and feet; and rapid or irregular heartbeat. You can see that chest pains are not the only warning sign.
Even though some women experience symptoms of cardiovascular disease or heart attacks, not all do. So-called “silent heart disease” can be a killer because it isn’t always noticeable or treated. In some cases, women only learn they have heart disease due to emergencies, such as having a heart attack or sudden, intense chest pains.
Tips to Protect Heart Health
Many women who develop heart disease or have heart attacks have risk factors prior to be diagnosed. The biggest risk factors include having:
- High blood pressure
- High LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol
- Some combination of these conditions, called metabolic syndrome
First and foremost, if you’re at increased risk for heart disease, do your best to manage these conditions. Make sure to visit your doctor for advice and help with monitoring your progress.
A number of diet and lifestyle habits can help lower your risk for developing cardiovascular disease, such as:
- Eating a healthy, whole foods diet, such as one high in plant foods, fiber, healthy fats like omega-3s and antioxidants
- Quitting smoking and using drugs
- Not abusing alcohol
- Maintaining a healthy weight/avoiding becoming overweight or obese
- Exercising regularly and avoiding a sedentary lifestyle
- Getting enough sleep every night (about seven to nine hours)
- Managing stress, so it doesn’t contribute to hormonal problems and high blood pressure
- Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death globally and in America, for both men and women.
- The symptoms of heart disease vary, depending on the type of condition, and some women don’t experience any symptoms at all until they are faced with an emergency situation.
- Signs of heart disease in women can include chest, back, jaw or neck pain; fatigue; and indigestion.
- To protect yourself from heart disease, including heart attack symptoms, change your diet and lifestyle. Focus on eating a healthy, well-balanced diet, exercise regularly, reduce stress, get enough sleep and don’t smoke.