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Why women are dying of heart attacks

February 10, 2017

You woke up this morning not feeling well, but who has time to be sick?

You can’t let a bit of nausea, dizziness and fatigue slow you down. You figure that you’re probably not getting enough sleep.

So you push through, take an antacid and a couple of ibuprofen then head out the door, figuring that this too shall pass.

Only it doesn’t.

Instead, you find yourself in the emergency room being treated for a heart attack.

Symptoms often subtler in women

According to Harvey Hahn, MD, cardiologist with Kettering Health Network, “Women’s heart attack symptoms can be the same or different from men’s, but they’re often more atypical – less pain, more pressure or discomfort.”

Unfortunately, women often chalk up their symptoms to less life-threatening conditions like the flu, acid reflux and normal aging.


First, they’re scared. Second, heart disease often still is considered a “man’s disease”, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that roughly the same number of men and women die from it each year. Third, women tend to believe the signs of a heart attack are unmistakable – think “elephant sitting on someone’s chest.” The reality is that the symptoms in women can be subtler.

While the most common heart attack symptom for both sexes is chest pain and discomfort, women are more likely to experience some other common symptoms that include:

  • Shortness of breath, with or without chest pressure
  • Nausea, vomiting, lightheadedness or breaking out in a cold sweat
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, as well as the back, jaw, neck or stomach
  • Indigestion or gas-like pain

“What we recommend is that if anything feels ‘different’ from your ‘nose to your navel,’ you should get it checked out,” explained Dr. Hahn. “That includes jaw, neck, shoulder, arm, chest, upper belly symptoms.”

Why are symptoms different?

According to the American Heart Association, the differences in heart disease symptoms may be due to where the blockages occur. Men tend to have blockages in the large coronary arteries surrounding the heart; women’s blockages most often occur in the very small arteries that branch out from the coronary arteries.

Risk factors for women

Although several traditional risk factors – high cholesterol, high blood pressure and obesity – affect both men and women, other factors play a larger role in the development of heart disease in women:

  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Mental stress and depression
  • Inactivity
  • Menopause

Heart disease is preventable

The good news is that with a little discipline, heart disease is preventable.

“A healthy lifestyle accounts for about 85 percent of your risk,” said Dr. Hahn. “It’s not your genetics; it’s your habits!”

Dr. Hahn advises the following:

  • Quit smoking – It sounds obvious, but many women continue to smoke. Stopping smoking will have a bigger impact on your health than any medicine will.
  • Get moving – Just 15 minutes a day can lower your risk of heart disease and stroke.
  • Eat better – You don’t have to focus on what NOT to eat, just try to eat more of the good stuff, such as fruits, vegetables, and nuts not coated in sugar or salt. The Mediterranean diet focuses on these things, plus virgin olive oil, and reduces your heart attack and death rate.

You can learn more about becoming and staying heart healthy by participating in Kettering Health Network’s annual A to Zumba event on Tuesday, Feb. 28, from 5:30-8 p.m. at Kettering Recreation Complex (2900 Glengarry Dr.). The event is free, and activities include: 10-minute heart check, chair massages, cooking demonstrations, health fair, prizes, tips from cardiologists, refreshments, exercise demos, and of course, Zumba!

Advance registration is required to participate. Click here for more information and to register for A to Zumba.