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Heart attack signs are often missed in women

March 22, 2018

While most women are likely aware of how serious heart disease is, they’re unlikely to be aware of the threat it poses to them personally. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in Canada – up to five times as many die from it than breast cancer. 

So why is it that early heart attack signs are missed in roughly 78% of women? In fact, one in nine out of 10 women have at least one risk factor for heart disease, with most underestimating that risk.   

One reason seems to lie with the variety of heart-attack symptoms women can experience. While both men and women experience chest pain and a tightness or pressure in their chest, studies show that the nature of this pain can differ between sexes – men tend to describe it as a crushing pain whereas women refer to it as a heaviness, discomfort or pressure.

Women are also more likely to have seemingly unrelated or non-specific symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, indigestion, nauseas, stomach pain, sweats,  jaw, neck or shoulder pain, and palpitations. This combination of symptoms may in fact distract doctors from correctly identifying what’s going on and lead them to miss the signs of a heart attack.

As well, women’s hearts are still misunderstood, especially when it comes to the differences between men’s and women’s hearts. A new report recently released by Heart & Stroke aims to shed light on this, calling for greater research, information and support when it comes to women and heart disease. 

And while such research is important in helping better prevent, diagnosis and treat heart disease in women, it’s equally important for women to inform themselves about, and take responsibility for, their heart health. So here are a few things women can do to reduce their risk of heart disease:

  • Talk to your family doctor about your individual risk factors
  • Become and/or remain smoke free
  • Achieve and maintain a healthy body weight
  • Be physically active for at least 20 minutes per day
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet with lots of vegetables and fruit
  • Maintain a healthy blood pressure through lifestyle or when needed through medication

Media stories on this topic:

CTV News – Women unnecessarily suffering from heart disease due to lack of research: report
CBC News – Women are unnecessarily suffering and dying from heart disease, new report says
National Post – Why heart disease is often missed in women: The myth of the 'widowmaker'
New York Post – Why do doctors ignore signs of heart attacks in women?
CNN – Why heart attack symptoms are sometimes missed in women