Listen to Your Heart: Learn the Subtle Signs of Heart Attack in Women

February 22, 2022

Woman touching her forehead in pain

As the primary health care decision-makers for families, women spend a lot of time watching for and guarding against viruses, germs, broken bones and every other health hazard. But there is one thing they may not be paying enough attention to: their own hearts.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in America, causing one out of every five deaths. But only 44% of women realize heart disease is so serious, and many don't realize they have it until it causes a heart attack. Even then, the symptoms — which can be subtle for women — often go unnoticed.

Vrinda Trivedi, MD
Vrinda Trivedi, MD

The good news is that when you take preventive measures and know what to look for, you may be able to protect yourself — even if a heart attack strikes.

We talked with Dr. Vrinda Trivedi, cardiologist at MU Health Care, to get answers to important questions about women and heart disease.

Why Your Heart Disease Might Go Undiagnosed

Coronary artery disease is the most common cardiac disease, and one with a strong link to heart attacks. Yet coronary artery disease in women has historically been understudied, underdiagnosed and undertreated. That’s partly because signs of heart disease and heart attacks tend to be more obvious in men.

According to Dr. Trivedi, research shows that women who have chest pain have a higher chance of being misdiagnosed with something other than heart disease when compared to men. That's because their symptoms can be vague and similar to the signs of many other issues, like stress, anxiety and indigestion. Women often don't realize that what they're experiencing is related to the heart and disregard the symptoms.

Heart Attack Symptoms in Women

You've likely seen it in the movies: A man having a heart attack gasps and clutches his chest or left arm. Those symptoms ring true for most men. And although some women can experience heart attacks in this characteristic way, they can present in a variety of other ways as well.

Heart attack in women can have one or a combination of symptoms including:

  • Chest pain or discomfort that may feel like pressure, squeezing or fullness, and lasts for more than a few minutes or comes and goes
  • Extreme fatigue, or feeling lightheaded
  • Feelings of indigestion, like acid reflux or heartburn
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Pain or discomfort in the upper body, including one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • Shortness of breath

How to Recognize Subtle Signs of a Heart Attack

If you experience subtle symptoms that may indicate a heart attack but want to make sure you're not just extra stressed or coming down with the flu, Dr. Trivedi suggests asking yourself these two questions:

  1. Did the symptoms appear suddenly? If your symptoms developed quickly and seemed to come out of nowhere (meaning you didn't just eat a spicy plate of nachos), it might be cause for concern.
  2. Are the symptoms severe? If your symptoms stop you in your tracks or keep you from focusing on daily activities, you should take note.

What to Do if You Suspect a Heart Attack

The adage "better safe than sorry" definitely applies when it comes to heart attacks. The earlier you identify a heart attack, the sooner you can receive treatment that may save your life and prevent long-term damage.

If you answer the above questions with "yes," head to the emergency room to be checked. If you notice pain that's not too bothersome but doesn't seem to resolve, it still warrants a visit to your doctor. Even if the symptoms and pain you're experiencing aren't from a heart attack, it's likely still a medical issue deserving attention.

What You Can Do Now to Prevent a Heart Attack Later

The best way to prevent heart disease and heart attack is to understand and decrease your risk. An annual checkup with your primary care provider is the perfect opportunity to review your heart health and set up a cardiovascular screening. Other steps to take include:

Talk to Your Doctor About Your Risk

Your age, family history, medical history and race may put you at a higher risk for heart disease. And although you can't change those things, there are other risk factors within your control, including:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Lack of regular physical activity
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking

Lowering your risk may be surprisingly easier than you think. Try implementing these daily habits to improve heart health. Your doctor can also help identify your risk and create a plan to manage it.

Learn Your Numbers

Knowing your risk involves understanding your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. A normal blood pressure is 120/80 mm Hg. Healthy cholesterol levels for women include a total cholesterol of 125 to 200mg/dL.

Simple lifestyle changes can help you get your numbers into the healthy range if they aren't there already. If your numbers are good, continue making heart-healthy choices.

Know Your Health History

Your medical history, as well as that of your family, can play an important role in your heart health. Let your doctor know if there is a history of heart disease in either your immediate or extended family. If you've had a previous heart attack, prior heart condition or a history of cardiovascular complications during pregnancy, your risk for developing future heart issues increases. Be sure to share that information with your doctor.

Next Steps and Useful Resources



Read more stories like this

Healthy Living