Heart Attack in Women

Heart attack (myocardial infarction) is one of the leading causes of sudden, unexpected death in women. A heart attack is damage to the heart that is not reversible. A heart attack usually occurs when a heart (coronary) artery becomes narrowed or blocked. The blockage cuts off blood supply to the heart muscle. When one or more of the coronary arteries becomes blocked, that area of the heart begins to die. This can cause pain felt during a heart attack.

If you think you might be having a heart attack, do not ignore your symptoms. Call your local emergency services (911 in U.S.) immediately. It is recommended that you take a 162 mg non-enteric coated aspirin if you do not have an aspirin allergy. Do not drive yourself to the hospital or wait to see if your symptoms go away. Early recognition of heart attack symptoms is critical. The sooner a heart attack is treated, the greater the amount of heart muscle saved. Time is muscle. It can save your life.

CAUSES

A heart attack can occur from coronary artery disease (CAD). CAD is a process in which the coronary arteries narrow or become blocked from the development of atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is a disease in which plaque builds up on the inside of the coronary arteries. Plaque is made up of fats (lipids), cholesterol, calcium, and fibrous tissue. A heart attack can occur due to:

  • Plaque buildup that can severely narrow or block the coronary arteries and diminish blood flow.

  • Plaque that can become unstable and "rupture." Unstable plaque that ruptures within a coronary artery can form a clot and cause a sudden (acute) blockage of the coronary artery.

  • A severe tightening (spasm) of the coronary artery. This is a less common cause of a heart attack. When a coronary artery spasms, it cuts off blood flow through the coronary artery. Spasms can occur in coronary arteries that do not have atherosclerosis.

RISK FACTORS

In women, as the level of estrogen in the blood decreases after menopause, the risk of a heart attack increases. Other risk factors of heart attack in women include:

  • High blood pressure.

  • High cholesterol levels.

  • Menopause.

  • Smoking.

  • Obesity.

  • Diabetes.

  • Hysterectomy.

  • Previous heart attack.

  • Lack of regular exercise.

  • Family history of heart attacks.

SYMPTOMS

In women, heart attack symptoms may be different than those in men. Women may not experience the typical chest discomfort or pain, which is considered the primary heart attack symptom in men. Women may describe a feeling of pressure, ache, or tightness in the chest. Women may experience new or different physical symptoms 1 month or more before a heart attack. Unusual, unexplained fatigue may be the most frequently identified symptom. Sleep disturbances and weakness in the arms may also be considered warning signs.

Other heart attack symptoms that may occur more often in women are:

  • Unexplained feelings of nervousness or anxiety.

  • Discomfort between the shoulder blades.

  • Tingling in the hands and arms.

  • Swollen arms.

  • Headaches.

Heart attack symptoms for both men and women include:

  • Pain or discomfort spreading to the neck, shoulder, arm, or jaw.

  • Shortness of breath.

  • Sudden cold sweats.

  • Pain or discomfort in the abdomen.

  • Heartburn or indigestion with or without vomiting.

  • Sudden lightheadedness.

  • Sudden fainting or blackout.

PREVENTION

The following healthy lifestyle habits may help decrease your risk of heart attacks:

  • Quitting smoking.

  • Keeping your blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels within normal limits.

  • Maintaining a healthy weight.

  • Staying physically active and exercising regularly.

  • Decreasing your salt intake.

  • Eating a diet low in saturated fats and cholesterol.

  • Increasing your fiber intake by including whole grains, vegetables, and fruits in your diet.

  • Avoiding situations that cause stress, anger, or depression.

  • Taking medicine as advised by your caregiver.

SEEK IMMEDIATE MEDICAL CARE IF:

  • You have severe chest pain, especially if the pain is crushing or pressure-like and spreads to the arms, back, neck, or jaw. This is an emergency. Do not wait to see if the pain will go away. Call your local emergency services (911 in U.S.) immediately. Do not drive yourself to the hospital.

  • You develop shortness of breath during rest, sleep, or with activity.

  • You have sudden, unexplained sweating or clammy skin.

  • You feel nauseous or vomit without cause.

  • You become lightheaded or dizzy.

  • You feel your heart beating rapidly or you notice your heart "skipping" beats.

MAKE SURE YOU:

  • Understand these instructions.

  • Will watch your condition.

  • Will get help right away if you are not doing well or get worse.