More women die of heart disease than men. And if a woman has a heart attack, she is twice as likely to die within a year when compared to a man. In fact, heart disease is the number one killer of women in our country, more than death from all cancers combined.
Why can’t a woman be more like a man?
Here’s why: Men usually have blockages in their major arteries while women tend to have blockages not only in their main arteries but also in smaller arteries (microcirculation) which supply blood to the heart. This biological difference is referred to as small-vessel heart disease. Researchers believe that this biological difference helps to explain the gender gap and why impending heart attacks for women present differently. For most women there is no crushing chest pain, announcing a dire condition. Instead their symptoms are not classical ones and are now getting attention, becoming known and being studied.
A careful study of over 500 women interviewed after their heart attacks revealed that 95% of these women experienced new and different symptoms the month before a heart attack. In addition, the problems were unexplainable – there were no clear-cut causes.
- Severe unusual fatigue (70%)
- Profound sleep disturbance (48%)
- Shortness of breath (42%)
- Indigestion (39%)
- Anxiety (35%)
- And finally, chest pain/discomfort (only 29%). It is most often not the kind of crushing pain felt by men but a pressure, an aching or tightness.
- Shortness of breath (58%)
- Weakness (55%)
- Unusual fatigue (43 %)
- Cold sweats (39%)
- Dizziness (39%)
- Back pain (37%)
- High chest pain (28%)
I have found that along with these warning symptoms, there is often a sense of impending doom and when I question my patients about their particular experience, it is this description that clearly differentiates what was happening from something less important.
In addition to the biological difference, recognition is also being given to the added stress in women lives today, stemming from their frequently combined roles as both caretakers and breadwinners. In my experience, women tend to look to more benign causes of the confluence of warning symptoms: they’ve told me they thought they were coming down with the flu or maybe they pulled a muscle in the garden, perhaps they were having a bad case of indigestion.
But for all women, regardless of age, if these symptoms come on suddenly for no good reason, you must consider the more serious possibility.