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How Does Being Female Affect My Risk?

What does a heart attack look like? An overweight man doubled over with chest pain, gasping for air? How about a retired woman with a deep ache between her shoulder blades, or a 35-year-old new mom with shortness of breath and tiredness she just can’t shake?

Women's symptoms are often labeled “atypical” because they differ from the classic symptoms traditionally found in men. What’s more, the signs of heart attacks in women can be far more subtle than the chest-clutching of what doctors call the “Hollywood heart attack.” Some symptoms can appear many months ahead of the heart attack itself, making them easy to dismiss. Women themselves don’t always connect their back pain or fatigue to heart disease or a heart attack because they don’t match the stereotype of someone in cardiac distress.  The result is that between one-quarter and one-half of heart attacks in women go unrecognized.

Know the early and immediate symptoms of heart attack in women, and see a doctor if they appear in you or someone you love.

Early Symptoms of Heart Attack

Some women live with the signs of a looming heart attack for as long as a year in advance, partly because many of the symptoms are easy to attribute to stress or busy lives. Here are some of the early warning signs of a heart attack, according to how common they are among women who have heart attacks:

  • Fatigue: A significant change in energy level, something out of the norm that lasts more than a few days. At 70 per cent, unusual fatigue is the single most common long-term symptom for women.
  • Sleep difficulties: Trouble falling asleep, or waking up in the night more than usual, often because of an ache or pain that won’t let you sleep.
  • Shortness of breath: Becoming winded doing the most basic activities, but especially during exercise.
  • Indigestion: Feeling uncomfortably full soon after eating, sometimes with pain or burning in the upper abdomen.
  • Chest discomfort: It may be mild discomfort, it may seem like indigestion.
  • Anxiety: Feeling nervous or apprehensive for no apparent reason, or more than usual.

Less common long-term symptoms include:

  • Discomfort: In the shoulder area, sometimes painful.
  • Headaches: More frequent or more severe.
  • Dizziness: Feeling lightheaded or woozy.
  • Vision problems: Blurred vision.

Immediate Symptoms of Heart Attack

In addition to the early warning signs above, here are some of the symptoms women most commonly report experiencing immediately before a heart attack:

  • Chest pain: While men having a heart attack often report a crushing or stabbing pain in their chest, many women say they felt pressure, tightness or aching in their chest or back.
  • Fatigue: More than feeling tired, this overwhelming fatigue makes it hard to do anything.
  • Breathing difficulties: It’s suddenly a struggle to take a full breath.
  • Radiating pain: Pain spreads across the jaw, arm, shoulder or radiating across the back

Less common:

  • Cold sweat: Suddenly sweating even though your skin is cool.  Some women also report feeling flushed or going red in the face.
  • Nausea: Feeling queasy for no apparent reason. May be accompanied by vomiting.
  • Dizziness: Feeling lightheaded or woozy.
  • Heart attacks are undetected by physicians up to 54% of the time
  • Approximately ­­­64% of women that die suddenly of coronary heart disease had no previous symptoms.