When I had a heart attack in 2008, my doctors told me I survived a “widow maker.” This is telling terminology, by the way, confirming physicians’ longstanding and mistaken belief that only men experience this kind of catastrophic blockage in a coronary artery. They’re not calling it the “widower maker,” after all!
My experience didn’t match at all the classic “Hollywood heart attack.” Before my own heart attack, I pictured an older, overweight, chain-smoking, hard-drinking man out on the golf course who suddenly clutches his chest and falls down unconscious. I pictured CPR, 911, ambulance, sirens, defibrillator paddles, the whole works. THAT to me was a heart attack.
So how could I be having one when I was fully conscious and could walk/talk and drive the car?
It turns out my situation was not unusual. A study of more than 1.1 million people reported in JAMA (The Journal of the American Medical Association) suggests that a surprising 42% of women admitted to the hospital mid-heart attack experience no chest pain at all. Nothing. Zero. Zilch. By comparison, only about 30% of men in this study who were admitted to the hospital mid-heart attack did not experience chest pain.
We already know from earlier studies reported in The New England Journal of Medicine that women under age 55 are seven times more likely than their male counterparts to be misdiagnosed mid-heart attack and sent home from the E.R. This JAMA study reports that women are more likely to die after a heart attack, too. Women under 55 who had heart attacks but no chest discomfort had two to three times the risk of dying in the hospital compared with men of the same age.
The JAMA study’s lead author, Florida’s Dr. John G. Canto, explained to The New York Times:
“We think part of the reason is that women who are presenting with a heart attack might not have that classical presentation. So they may not be recognized as having a heart attack, and possibly some of these patients may present too late to receive lifesaving procedures.”
We know that women are slower to seek medical help even when we’re mid-heart attack, are under-diagnosed compared to male heart patients, and—astonishingly!—are under-treated even when we are appropriately diagnosed.
As cardiologists like to say: “Time equals muscle” when it comes to surviving a heart attack by getting quick medical attention. That’s why it’s so important for all of us—and particularly for women—to recognize and seek help immediately for heart attack warning signs.
These warnings include:
Not all of these signs occur in every heart attack. Pay attention if these signs come on suddenly or just feel unusual for you. Sometimes symptoms go away and then return, continuing for days, weeks, or even months.
LISTEN to your body. DON’T IGNORE symptoms. GET HELP fast.
For more on this, read How Does It Really Feel to Have a Heart Attack? Women Survivors Tell Their Stories.
By the way, that man on the golf course does exist, but what he’s experiencing is likely sudden cardiac arrest (basically an electrical problem with the heart) and not actually a heart attack at all (which is more like a plumbing problem in which arteries that feed the heart muscle becomes blocked). About 75% of sudden cardiac arrests happen to males, not females—so I was in fact a tiny bit correct in my stereotype.
For more information on how to keep your heart healthy, check out our Love-Your-Heart Center.
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