Heart Attacks in Women Just as Deadly – But Signs Are Subtler than in Men

After many years of providing emergency care, one thing that still startles me is how easily women in particular mistake the signs of a heart attack for something else. There is a reason for it—women actually do experience heart attacks differently than men.

For women, heart attacks are more difficult to detect, but they’re just as deadly. Heart disease is the number one killer for women – more deadly than all cancers combined. Approximately one woman every minute dies from heart disease.

As we have seen on television shows and in movies, a typical man who is experiencing a heart attack describes the pain as “an elephant sitting on my chest,” while clutching his fists towards his chest, sweating, and having difficulty breathing. This is a fair representation of a heart attack for a man.

Women, however, are very different in their presentation of a heart attack. For a woman, the pain experienced with a heart attack can be very vague or misleading, and often is dismissed as indigestion, back or neck pain, or just generalized discomfort that is hard to describe. Often, women experience nausea, and possibly vomiting, and some shortness of breath that is very similar to walking up several flights of stairs at once.

Even the subtlest signs and symptoms can have the deadliest outcomes. Because of this, and the possibility of sudden death, immediate medical attention is required. Calling 911 ensures care is delivered as quickly as possible – faster than driving a loved one, or even driving yourself, to the emergency department. Our local ambulances are in communication with the Benefis Emergency Department during transport, so we can prepare for your arrival and get you the care you need within minutes. With such early notification from the ambulance, trained professionals and key specialists are alerted to be ready for a patient that is en route.

Care for a heart attack victim requires advanced training, specialty physicians, and a cardiac catherization laboratory (cath lab) to provide the highest level of care and treatment. Benefis is the most well-equipped hospital in the area to provide this level of life-saving service. We have nationally board-certified emergency medicine physicians and interventional cardiologists ready to assist in your care. Our fully-equipped cardiac cath lab is always ready to help maximize your chances for a full recovery. Additionally, our highly-trained cardio-thoracic surgeons and surgical team can deliver life-saving care within minutes.

There is a lot that you can do to avoid ending up in the emergency department. The key to success with heart disease is taking proactive steps to control certain risk factors. Shockingly, 90 percent of women have one or more risk factors for developing heart disease, but with the help of your physician, you can take simple steps to begin reducing your risk for heart disease.

Here are some of the most common risk factors for heart disease:

  1. High Cholesterol and Poor Diet: A diet that contains excess fats and sugars and lack fruits and vegetables puts your heart at risk. When there is too much cholesterol in your blood, it builds up inside your arteries.
  2. High Blood Pressure: If not controlled with medication, high blood pressure places too strong of a force on your arteries and causes them to harden faster than normal.
  3. Smoking: Smoking damages the blood vessels and makes it easier for blood clots to form.
  4. Uncontrolled Diabetes: Adults with diabetes are two to four times more likely to have a heart disease.
  5. Weight: Extra weight causes extra stress on your heart.

As with most diseases, prevention is key. If you find yourself experiencing any of the symptoms of a heart attack, please call 911 immediately. In emergency situations like a heart attack, seconds can make all the difference.

By: Kevin Langkeit, Benefis Health System Director for Emergency & Critical Care Services