What Women Need to Know About Minimizing Their Chances for Heart Attacks

Published on April 11, 2019

It’s fairly well known that coronary heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women in the United States.

But taking a deeper dive within those numbers, researchers discovered that the number of reported heart attacks among women ages 30-50 are increasing.

What’s the Deal?

Between 1995 and 1999, women between the ages of 35 and 55 accounted for just 21 percent of all heart attacks among women. At that time, it was the Baby Boomers who accounted for the majority.

But something changed as Generation X women got older:

Between 2010 and 2014, women ages 35-to-55 began having more heart attacks. In just a little over a decade, the incidence of heart attacks among women in this age range increased by nearly a third – to 31 percent of all heart attacks among women. And too many of these heart attacks were fatal.

The problem is particularly severe among African-Americans: 49 percent of black women over the age of 20 already have heart disease. Most don’t know it.

Scientists still aren’t sure why heart attacks among younger women are spiking. Yet, whatever is causing it doesn’t seem to be affecting as many men: the incidence of heart attacks among men in the same age group hardly budged.

Women are also significantly more likely to die of their first heart attack than men. More than two thirds of women who die of heart attacks have reported no known previous symptoms.

Spontaneous coronary artery dissection, or SCAD, accounts for 40 percent of heart attacks in women under age 50. The majority of victims do not have commonly recognized precursors to heart attacks, such as diabetes or high cholesterol. It frequently strikes even active, healthy, normal-weight women who are not considered at risk for a heart attack. The average age of SCAD victims is 42, with reported cases as young as 14.

Alarmingly, women often don’t know they are having a heart attack because their symptoms are different than men. Where men frequently have chest pains that signal an oncoming heart attack, research from Harvard University finds that only one female heart attack victim out of every eight reports chest pains as a symptom.

Instead, women are more likely to experience symptoms easily confused with the flu or indigestion: dizziness, nausea and vomiting. Women are twice as likely to report nausea and vomiting as a heart attack symptom than men.

A study from Leeds University in the UK found that women experiencing heart attacks are 50 percent more likely to receive an incorrect initial diagnosis than men.

As a result, women are less likely to get important screenings for heart disease in time to start treatment and prevent a heart attack.

Women are also less likely to receive cardiac monitoring services – a critical step in identifying dangerous arrhythmias that left untreated can lead to sudden cardiac death syndrome. Several types of arrhythmias are more common in women than in men.

What Can Women Do?

First, women need to recognize potential symptoms of heart disease and heart attacks and take them seriously. According to WomensHealth.gov, symptoms of heart attacks in women include:

  • Chest pain or pressure, squeezing or fullness.
  • Upper body discomfort often perceived in the neck or jaw.
  • Shortness of breath
  • Light-headedness or sudden dizziness
  • Cold sweat
  • Unusual or unexplainable fatigue.

If you have symptoms, act.

Second, women (and men) should be more proactive about monitoring and preserving their health.

The American Heart Association recommends women get frequent screenings for high blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and weight/body mass index every year or two. Those with blood pressure levels greater than 120/80, high cholesterol or who are overweight should get screened more frequently.

If you’re at risk, or if you’re experiencing symptoms, ask your doctor for a referral to a cardiologist. They may order a coronary calcium scan that can detect arterial plaque buildup, or a CT angiogram, which uses X-rays to spot early signs of heart disease. Your cardiologist may also prescribe a remote cardiac monitor, a heart monitor that you wear for a certain time period and allows your doctor to monitor you for a cardiac arrythmia.

Get Monitored

Remote cardiac monitoring devices and technology have undergone a transformation in recent years. Some platforms include a monitoring device that weighs just ounces, is smaller than a cell phone, and is able to transmit every single heartbeat to your doctor in near real time. This makes diagnosis much faster, more affordable, and more accurate than ever before. Other devices take advantage of artificial intelligence, deep learning and advanced algorithms to detect heart arrythmias – even intermittent ones that are often missed with an EKG at the doctor’s office.

Start Preventative Care

These are vital steps to receiving an accurate diagnosis. Once doctors are able to identify a potentially dangerous arrhythmia, they can get you on lifesaving medications to control cholesterol and blood pressure, relieve the strain on your heart muscle, and keep your heart beating on rhythm. If you need a pacemaker to keep your heartbeat regulated, doctors can do that, too. But first, you need to be diagnosed correctly.

Patients can then make lifestyle adjustments, get on appropriate medications to reduce blood pressure and cholesterol, and get a pacemaker implanted to correct dangerous arrhythmias.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, measures like these can save more than 200,000 lives each year.

Looking for more health tips from Grit Daily? Check out our comprehensive coverage, here.

Stuart Long is a Health Columnist at Grit Daily. He is the CEO of InfoBionic and a medical-technology industry expert who also has clinical experience in both hospital-based radiology and non-invasive cardiology.  

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