The greatest difference between men and women when it comes to heart attacks is the constellation of symptoms experienced. In addition to the classic symptom of chest pain, which can radiate to other areas of the body, women exhibit symptoms such as shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, upper abdominal discomfort, and pain in the back, neck, jaw or throat. The chest pain that women experience is also perceived differently. Among women, the pain is frequently described as a pressure or tightness, and not necessarily the typical “stabbing” pain often described by men. The radiation of pain to various parts of the body (i.e. to the left arm) is often absent in women.
Minimizing or failing to observe these symptoms is also much more common in women than in men—the symptoms are oftentimes too late, or possibly not at all, attributed to a heart attack. It is crucial to receive medical care as early as possible in order to prevent long-term effects, or even death.
The danger of failing to recognize or minimizing symptoms occurs more frequently in women than in men. The realization that symptoms are due to a heart attack often occurs too late, or sometimes not at all. It is particularly important in the setting of heart attack to receive medical care as soon as possible to avoid complications, or even death.
In both men and women, the hour after a blood vessel is occluded, also known as the “golden hour”, is critical. Early intervention can minimize or prevent complications. With a heart attack, a blocked artery prevents oxygen from reaching a portion of heart muscle. After as little as 20 to 60 minutes without oxygen, the undernourished tissue irreversibly dies and scars form. The scarring can also eventually lead to dangerous heart rhythm disturbances.
Studies have shown that only 11% of people suffering from heart attack receive necessary intervention within the golden hour. The cause of delay often lies in the improper assessment of symptoms and the commonly held desire to not cause a “fuss” around one’s own situation. The decision of whether to seek medical attention is very important.
Age is another area where women and men differ when dealing with heart attacks. The risk of a heart attack in women increases starting at age 60. As the hormones that are circulating throughout the body help protect women from a heart attack, the reduction in these hormones following menopause leads to an increased risk. In contrast, men are affected significantly earlier.
The common risk factors for a heart attack pertain to women as well—these include high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, stress, obesity, diabetes mellitus and smoking. Smoking has a more severe effect on the heart health of women than of men; the risk of suffering from a heart attack in women who smoke is 25% higher than in men who smoke. The number of women who smoke has been increasing considerably over the past few years, thereby increasing these women’s risk of heart attack. An additional risk factor is taking an oral contraceptive pill.
For more detailed information about heart attacks, read our article Heart Attack (Myocardial Infarction).