Symptoms of heart disease in women are often different than those that are considered typical for men. This appears to be the case because most of the initial research on heart disease, and therefore the recording of signs, symptoms and conditions, were recorded from men.
Heart disease is the number one cause of death in American women, greater in number than cancer. More women than men die each year of cardiovascular disease. The most common symptoms of coronary artery disease is angina or chest pain. People describe the experience as a discomfort, heaviness, tightness, pressure, aching, fullness, or squeezing. Although angina is usually felt in the chest in men women can also feel the pain in the left shoulder, arms, neck, back or jaw.
It’s important to recognize that if you feel angina or chest pain you should call 9-1-1 and not a friend, relative or acquaintance. This is an emergency, not a coffee break. Treat it like an emergency because seconds count in the treatment of a heart attack. It can easily mean the difference between life and death.
Studies have shown that women’s heart disease symptoms are less likely to be identified as heart disease than in men. This may be because heart disease becomes more prevalent in post-menopausal women who may also be suffering from other illnesses or conditions that mask the symptoms of heart disease.
The most common symptom of heart disease in women are a burning sensation in the chest or upper abdomen that may mimic heart burn, shortness of breath, dizziness, fatigue and nausea that can mimic the menopausal symptoms and pain or pressure over the chest that travels to the arm or jaw. On the average the first symptoms of heart disease in women appear 10 years later in women than men and women often report symptoms before having a heart attack although the symptoms aren’t typical.
The most common women heart disease symptom reported in a multi-center study published in Circulation 2003 was unusual fatigue, sleep disturbances, shortness of breath and anxiety.
According to the American Heart Association there are several possibilities why there is a difference in health care between men and women. Because women are diagnosed with heart disease at an average of 10 years later than men some chronic conditions such as arthritis and diabetes will affect the way in which heart disease can be treated, sometimes limiting the treatment options. These conditions also change the way in which heart disease is presented and thus delaying the diagnosis of the condition.
Interestingly, because most research was done on men for many years the predictive value of specific tests may also not be accurate. For instance the standard exercise stress test isn’t as accurate on women as it is on men.
Symptoms of heart disease in women may be more atypical and therefore both women and their doctors should be aware of the possibility of heart disease and treat unusual symptoms appropriately. Heart disease can be life threatening and heart attacks should be treated within just 60-120 minutes after the first symptoms. This combination of atypical signs and immediate treatment options makes diagnosis and treatment more difficult in women than in men.
MayoClinic: Heart Disease in Women
Cleveland Clinic: Symptoms of Coronary Artery Disease
National heart Lung and Blood Institute: What are the signs and symptoms of heart disease
American Heart Association: Heart Attack Symptoms in Women
Womens Health: Heart Disease Fact Sheet
US Food and Drug Administration: Heart disease in Women
British Heart Foundation: Symptoms for Heart Conditions
Eth Israel Deaconess Medical Center: Heart Disease- Differences Between Men and Women