Heart attacks in women came into public attention early in 2022, when Victorian Senatore Kimberly Hitching died suddenly of a heart attack with no previous history of heart disease. It got me thinking about women's symptoms of a heart attack that can be missed.
As one of the “silent” killers in women’s health, this shone a light on the realities of heart disease in women - in fact heart disease, including heart attacks, is the biggest killer of women in Australia. I was shocked when I found this out to be honest, and as someone who generally associated heart attacks and disease with people in the later stages of life I was woefully mistaken.
Heart health has always been a concern in the back of my mind. Heart disease is in my genes from my family, I have always done my best to be proactive about maintaining a healthy heart as best I can. I thought because of my genetics I it was only relevant for me to be aware about getting health checks.
For those with no family history with heart disease or personal experience with it might struggle to know the symptoms of a heart attack.
For example, if someone were to ask you what you thought the symptoms of a heart attack were, maybe your response would be ‘numbness in the left arm’ and maybe a lingering smell of burnt toast. Basically the things you see represented in TV and media.
What a lot of people might be surprised to learn, however, is that heart attack symptoms in women are often very different to what a man may typically experience before a heart attack. Because of this, the warning signs of a heart attack in women are often dismissed, missed or misdiagnosed due to a lack of awareness of this difference in symptoms.
Unfortunately this is not an uncommon theme in women’s health, as the vast majority of studies and surveys done on medical conditions have been conducted primarily on men, so the symptoms we are taught to look for can often go unseen in women. And while research has so far shown that men are at more risk of suffering a heart attack during their lifetime, there are certain types of heart attacks and periods of a woman's life where we are much more susceptible to a heart attack.
Live Well Health Essentials’ goal is to support holistic health, especially for women like the team here at Live Well Health Essentials who are their family’s support system, primary caregiver and touchstone, so our goal is to encourage as much discourse and understanding on this unseen aspect of women’s health: heart attacks.
Heart disease runs in my family, so one of the ways I stay proactive about my heart health is by getting my heart checked annually for any anomalies or stress signs. I proactively get an EKG during healthy heart week each year.
What Is a Heart Attack?
A heart attack occurs when the arteries that send blood and oxygen to the heart get blocked and no longer function, causing the tissue to die and the heart to stop functioning properly. This can be due to a multitude of reasons, from a blood clot to a buildup of plaque in the arteries.
What are Women’s Heart Attack Symptoms?
Women have been shown to experience differing symptoms of a heart attack in comparison to men. While women can experience the same chest pain or tightness in breath, it may look less dramatic that what many people believe a heart attack can look like. Women are more likely to experience heart attack symptoms other than chest pain, and some women have been reported as mistaking heart attack symptoms as heartburn or simply having the flu… seriously.
Jaw, Back and Neck Pain
Discomfort or tension around the jaw, neck and back are one of the more commonly reported women’s heart attack symptoms, and are one of the big symptoms that can cause confusion - if you were to suddenly feel jaw pain or neck pain generally the mind doesn’t immediately jump to “Oh look I’m having a heart attack” right? While most women who experience this symptom also endure other symptoms, it can be tricky to isolate symptoms like this on their own and feel like you’re not being overdramatic, especially in women who have no history of heart disease. Some women can also experience lower abdomen pain in conjunction with these other areas.
Nausea and Dizziness
There have been patients who reported waking up from sleep with a feeling of nausea and sometimes vomiting, and along with a feeling like indigestion put it down to having eaten something a little unwise before bed. Experiencing symptoms while asleep is actually quite a common factor in women who experience heart attacks, and is often chalde up to indigestion. A feeling of lightheadedness or dizziness is also common in women’s heart attack symptoms, and often occurs coupled up with nausea.
Shortness of Breath and Sweating
Feeling out of breath or like you’ve just run a marathon while sitting on your couch can be another symptom of a heart attack in women. This can be with or without chest pain or tightness around the lungs, and has been mistaken in some cases for a panic attack. Unusual amounts of sweating is another one.
While all of these symptoms can be experienced coupled with the signature chest pain and feeling of heartburn most people associate with a heart attack, it should be understood that they can also appear on their own and thus often misdiagnosed or often just ignored. Comparatively, heart attack symptoms in men are much more likely to be caught earlier as they experience the more well known symptoms of chest pain, arm/shoulder pain and sometimes nausea.
Why are women’s heart attack symptoms so often missed?
Due to the lack of education and awareness of women’s heart attack symptoms and the often misleading nature of the symptoms as described above, it’s not a surprise that women's’ heart attack symptoms go unnoticed. Unfortunately this is not an uncommon case in women’s health, and studies have shown women are much less likely than men to seek help early in the stages of a heart attack or heart disease than men.
The role of family health carer or or primary carer for older members of the family is often unloaded onto women, who are expected to be the rock of the family for both the children and the parents. Ironically, a large factor in women who experience heart attacks is stress… no surprise there.
Women are also less likely to seek medical help for many other health issues, so this coupled with the vague nature of women's heart attack symptoms means heart attacks go under the radar.
When and why are women more likely to experience a heart attack?
Contrary to popular opinion, it is not only older women who are at risk of heart attacks or heart disease, which is why I am so diligent about getting annual heart checks and keeping my body as healthy as I can. While the likelihood of experiencing a heart attack does increase over the age of 55, the percentage of women in their 20s and 30s experiencing heart attacks has actually risen in the last few years.
Did you know that there are different types of heart attacks? Making up a whopping 40% of heart attacks experienced by women under the age of 40, spontaneous coronary artery dissection, or SCAD, is simultaneously the biggest contributor to women's’ heart health and one of the least well known. Scad begins with a tear or bleed in the arteries that stops blood flow to the heart, and can cause heart arrhythmias or abnormalities or even sudden death. The symptoms can be like that of a heart attack or they can be so small they go unnoticed until it’s too late. What makes SCAD so potentially dangerous is the patients are usually young, healthy and fit with no previous history of heart disease.
It’s as of yet still unclear what causes SCAD, as the usual problems leading to a heart attack like plaque build up doesn’t apply, and the people who suffer an attack are generally not smokers, diabetic, or obese as with regular heart attacks.
Pregnancy and Birth
According to recent studies, women who have given birth within recent weeks are at a higher risk of suffering SCAD. During pregnancy, conditions such as preeclampsia and gestational diabetes have been shown to increase a woman’s chance of experiencing a heart attack. Preeclampsia refers to high blood pressure that affects women and babies, and high blood pressure is a leading risk factor in heart attacks.
Is there anything I can do to prevent a heart attack?
To break up the doom and gloom, yes! While none of us are in total control of whether or not we experience a heart attack, there are always measures we can take to ensure our body is healthy and has a strong chance of remaining that way.
Here are some things you can do to proactively prevent heart disease and attacks:
- Be aware of heart attack symptoms. Women’s heart attacks go misdiagnosed or unnoticed so often because the awareness of what a heart attack in women can look like, so educating yourself and those around you to the symptoms can help make sure you’re prepared in case of emergency. Hopefully this article helped with that!
- Get your heart checked. It may be daunting, but I would rather be safe than sorry at the end of the day - it’s a quick process that helps you stay on top of your heart health.
- Stay educated. If you’re feeling overwhelmed with information, try following some our favourite instagram accounts to learn more ways to be healthy for your heart like @heatfoundationau - following accounts like these on social media can be a great way to absorb helpful information.
- Quit smoking. This should be a no brainer on so many levels, but don’t smoke! Your body will thank you.
- Be active. Incorporating exercise into your lifestyle greatly helps your cardiovascular health and keeps your body fit.
- Eat a well rounded diet. This doesn’t mean you have to eat perfectly health 24/7, but making sure you’re getting enough nutrients and a variety of vegetables, fruits, and protein is one of the best ways to prevent heart disease and avoid plaque build up in the arteries, and avoid high cholesterol.
Awareness is so important in women’s health, not just for us to be prepared but for those around us. As the heart of many families, women often overlook their health in favour of looking after their families, both the little ones and the older ones. Making sure I can be here for my kids is a big part of why I get my heart regularly checked and for peace of mind.
At Live Well Health Essentials our goal is to help educate women so they can take care of themselves, because if you’re not healthy that prohibits you doing so many things that make life wonderful.