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This is how gender affects the way you experience a heart attack

Used with permission from Orlando Health.
Used with permission from Orlando Health.

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Heart disease is often thought of as a man’s disease, but it is the leading cause of death in American women, too, with about one in five dying from the illness.

Nearly two-thirds of women who die suddenly from coronary heart disease have no symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That’s why it is important for them to be aware of the risks and take preventive steps.

For those already diagnosed with heart disease, it’s vital to take good care to minimize the progression of the illness, said Dr. Swathy Kolli, a cardiologist with the Orlando Health Heart Institute Cardiology Group.

Well-known risk factors for heart disease are diabetes, hypertension, abnormal cholesterol levels, obesity, physical inactivity and smoking. These are not different for men and women.

Recognizing heart attack symptoms in women

Heart disease can take place in different forms, but the one most people are familiar with is a heart attack, which occurs when the flow of blood that brings oxygen to the heart gets reduced or cut off. That happens when the arteries bringing blood to the heart narrow from an accumulation of fat or cholesterol.

Symptoms of a heart attack in women may be different from those in men. While women may feel crushing pain in the chest, the symptoms also may be more subtle, and they may come and go. Symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain or discomfort in the arm, back or neck
  • Upper back pressure
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Vomiting

With the onset of symptoms, it is important to get treatment right away to limit the damage that may be occurring to the heart from a lack of blood flow.

Recognizing heart attack symptoms in men

For men and women, the most common symptom of a heart attack is chest pain. Though women are more likely to experience a variety of symptoms, some men do, too. For both genders, the more symptoms an individual experiences, the greater likelihood a heart attack is occurring.

Men should pay attention to these reactions:

  • Pain, pressure, squeezing or aching in the chest or arm -- can spread to jaw, neck and back
  • Nausea, heartburn or abdominal pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cold sweat
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Fatigue

Risk factors that are unique to women:

  • Preterm delivery
  • Hypertensive disorders in pregnancy
  • Gestational diabetes
  • Autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosus
  • Radiation for left-sided breast cancer
  • Persistence of weight gain after pregnancy

Most heart attacks start slowly with the onset of mild pain, but some can be sudden. Quick action is vital to save a life if any of these symptoms are present. Call 911 even if you are not sure it is a heart attack.