Jennifer F. Jarbeau, MD, clinical cardiologist
Brigham and Women’s Cardiovascular Associates at Care New England

The  “typical” symptoms of a heart attack or symptoms that may be a warning of an impending heart attack are:

  • Pressure or tightness in the chest which lasts for several minutes and often occurs with exertion, but can also occur at rest.
  • Symptoms can sometimes radiate to the neck, jaw, and either arm.
  • Shortness of breath can often accompany the symptoms, but may occur on their own as well.
  • Nausea, lightheadedness, and profuse sweating can often occur with the chest discomfort or shortness of breath.

Not everyone has “typical” symptoms, however.  Women are known to have more unusual symptoms such as fatique, indigestion, dizziness, or just a general feeling of “unease.”  This is why heart attack symptoms are sometimes missed in women. Also, there is a misconception that women don’t have heart attacks and that it is a “man’s disease.”  Unfortunately this couldn’t be any further from the truth, as one in three women will die of a heart attack or stroke. It remains the number one killer of women.

Women themselves often don’t take their symptoms seriously, even when they do have the warnings signs above.  How often do we say it’s just “stress” or “anxiety” and then don’t have worrisome symptoms more closely evaluated? We do this because we are often scared to find out that something is indeed wrong or because we just don’t have time to be sick. Women often delay seeking treatment which can be deadly since a heart attack can best be treated if diagnosed within hours of the onset of symptoms.  After that, the damage may already have been done.

Simple steps such as regular exercise and eating a healthy diet are very effective in improving one’s overall health.  Also, not smoking and maintaining a healthy weight are important, too. Eighty percent of heart disease is preventable, and everyone should take steps to be more aware of  the symptoms of a heart attack, but also the steps they can take to prevent heart disease.

For more information about heart disease in women, visit womenandinfants.org/cardiology.