Women and heart attacks

Woman standing a field of yellow flowers

The symptoms of a heart attack vary from person to person. Women’s symptoms can differ from ‘classic’ chest pain (which can also be true for men). 

The most important thing is recognising these symptoms; something that we know women are less likely to do.  Women are less likely to seek medical attention and treatment, despite the warning signs. 

So it is important that you are aware of the symptoms that could be due to a heart attack.

Signs and Symptoms of a heart attack in women

  • Chest pain or discomfort - the most recognised  symptom of a heart attack though not always present.
  •  Pain radiating to the arms, neck, jaw, stomach and back can all be symptoms of a heart attack.
  • You may experience pain in just one or all of these places; for some people the pain is severe but for others just uncomfortable. 
  • A feeling of indigestion or reflux type pain - this is often ignored in the hope that it will pass.  
  • Feeling sick, sweaty, breathless or lightheaded with associated chest pain or discomfort 
  • A general feeling of being unwell or lethargic can also be an indicator of a heart attack when accompanied by chest pain or discomfort.

The statistics

It kills more than twice as many women as breast cancer every year, yet  coronary heart disease is still perceived to be a ‘man’s disease’.

There are over 900,000 women in the UK living with coronary heart disease, the main cause of heart attacks. 68,000 women go to hospital following a heart attack each year in the UK - an average of 186 women per day, or 8 per hour. 

Considering these figures, it’s worrying that some women don’t realise that heart disease could happen to them.

It’s possible to have a heart attack without experiencing ‘classic’ chest pain, though. This is more common in people with diabetes, because a consequence of the condition can be nerve damage, which can affect how you feel pain.

We know that women tend to wait longer before calling 999 after first experiencing heart attack symptoms. This might be because women are less likely to recognise the symptoms, they’re reluctant to cause a fuss, or they don’t want to be embarrassed if it turns out that their situation isn’t serious. This delay can dramatically reduce your chance of survival.

If you think you are having a heart attack, don’t delay; call 999 for an ambulance immediately. 
Rapid treatment is essential, and the aim is to restore blood flow to the affected part of the heart muscle as soon as possible. This helps to limit the amount of damage to the heart.

Know your risk

We recommend that all women over the age of 40 visit their local GP or nurse for a health check. This check may help to highlight anything that could put you at increased risk of having a heart attack. Identifying and managing a condition such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol now could help lower your risk of a heart attack in the future.  If you have a family history of cardiovascular disease make sure you tell your doctor or nurse. You are considered to have a family history of cardiovascular disease if:

  • your father or brother was under the age of 55 when they were diagnosed with cardiovascular disease or
  • your mother or sister was under the age of 65 when they were diagnosed with cardiovascular disease.

As a woman, your hormones may give you some protection from CHD in your pre-menopause years. Post menopause, your risk of getting CHD rises- and continues to rise as your get older. As you get older it is increasingly important to be aware of the risk factors that can affect your risk of developing CHD.