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6 Surprising Heart Disease Symptoms in Women

More women die of heart disease each year than of any other illness. Learn the symptoms to watch for to protect your health.

By Sheryl Kraft /

Heart disease is the number one cause of death and disability in women, accounting for 267,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. Then why do so many women still think it’s just a “man’s disease?”

When 50-year-old Rosie O’Donnell felt nauseated and weak a few hours after helping an obese woman struggling to get out of her car last week, the furthest thing from her mind was that she was in the throes of an impending heart attack.

As she writes on her blog, “I had an ache in my chest…both my arms were sore…everything felt bruised.” She soldiered on, thinking she had strained or pulled a muscle. But her flu-like symptoms persisted and worsened; later that day she became extremely nauseated and ultimately, vomited.

Was it a Heart Attack?
Though it crossed her mind that it might be a heart attack—she popped an aspirin just in case it was (a possibly life-saving move)—O’Donnell didn’t visit her doctor until the following day. An EKG test revealed a shocking 99 percent blockage in a left ascending artery that feeds the heart, necessitating the insertion a stent. To call her lucky to be alive is an understatement: this type of heart attack is dubbed the “widow maker,” most times causing sudden death.

Every 33 seconds, someone in the United States dies from cardiovascular disease—a shocking statistic, equivalent to a September 11th-type tragedy repeating itself every 24 hours, 365 days a year, according to The Heart Foundation. And this year, more than 920,000 Americans will suffer a heart attack, nearly half of them occurring without prior symptoms or warning signs.

Women Account for More Than Half the Heart Disease Deaths Each Year
Can the hundreds of thousands of deaths from heart attacks suffered by women in this country—six times the amount who die from breast cancer each year—be prevented? Many of them can, by making sensible lifestyle changes (eating whole grains, limiting salt intake, exercising) and eliminating common risk factors for heart disease like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, smoking, and stress.

Equally important is knowing the symptoms, which are markedly different from men’s. They’re so different, in fact, that women are less likely than men to survive a heart attack (42% of women who have heart attacks die within 1 year, compared to 24% of men). One possible reason for this discrepancy? Women don’t recognize the symptoms—and therefore don’t seek treatment—quickly enough.

Symptoms of Heart Attack in Women:

  • Chest pain, pressure, tightness, heaviness or burning. Like men, this is the most common symptom…but many women never feel chest pain at all.
  • Pain or discomfort in the neck, shoulders, lower jaw, arms, upper back, or abdomen.
  • Shortness of breath lasting for more than a few seconds.
  • Feeling lightheaded, dizzy, or faint.
  • Unusual sweating.
  • Heart palpitations; feeling like your heart is beating very fast or is out of rhythm.

If You Think You’re Having a Heart Attack:

  • Minutes count. Don’t ignore your symptoms or fear you’ll be dismissed as a hypochondriac or hysterical. Act! Better to get it checked out and be wrong, than to wait and suffer serious consequences.
  • Dial 911 or call for an ambulance right away. Do not drive yourself to a hospital.
  • After calling for help: chew or swallow 1 uncoated adult aspirin (325 mg) or 4 uncoated baby aspirins (81 mg each). Do not take aspirin if you are allergic.
  • If you’re alone, unlock the door, sit in a comfortable chair, and wait for help to arrive.
  • Keep the phone within reach.

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