Gender Discrepancy: Women Often Have Different Heart Attack Symptoms Than Men
"Prior to the last decade or two, many studies assumed men and women were similar in terms of medical issues, presentation with medical issues, and response to medical therapy," said Ellen Gallant, interventional cardiologist at McKay-Dee Hospital in Ogden, in an e-mail. "We have learned that this is not true -- gender differences exist."
Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death among women, and one of the reasons for the high mortality rate might be misconceptions about heart attacks in women.
"Women will more commonly not realize these symptoms as being related to a heart attack and will delay seeking medical attention," Gallant said.
Delaying treatment can be a deadly mistake. Gallant said the mortality rate for women under the age of 50 who have a heart attack are two times higher than for men.
Silent Heart Attacks
Women also are more prone to what are called silent heart attacks, where there are no symptoms.
"A silent heart attack may be diagnosed days to even months or years after the event when a patient has an EKG or other cardiac evaluation for completely different reasons," Gallant said.
She said diabetics are more prone to silent heart attacks as well, because diabetes can affect the nerves leading to the heart that relay the symptoms.
Extreme fatigue is another symptom that is being reported more often by women.
"A lot of patients will say, 'I really don't have much energy lately,' " Douglas said. "That's something I hear a lot. That's a symptom that should be paid attention to. It shouldn't be ignored."
The bottom line: There is no blueprint for symptoms of a heart attack. Unusual symptoms are more common for women, but men can have them, too.
Pre-symptoms, such as Smith's indigestion, can occur for a long time before a heart attack hits.
"You can have it for days and weeks before," Douglas said. "People should just be in tuned to that. Because, certainly, preventing a heart attack results in a much faster and better recovery than waiting for you to have a heart attack."
If you have these symptoms, Douglas said, call emergency personel right away and refrain from driving to the hospital.
Douglas said everyone should be concerned about heart health and get their blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar checked.
"It's never really too early to start taking good care of your heart," Douglas said. "We are seeing heart disease earlier and earlier and earlier in women."
Looking back at herself before the heart attack, Smith said she should have known she was a candidate for heart disease. Her weight, her smoking, her blood pressure, her family history -- the risks were there.
"You need to get checked," Smith said. "I was like a ticking time bomb waiting to happen there."