Women's heart attacks - knowing symptoms and preventive care

Posted August 10, 2016 12:27 p.m. EDT

There’s a little known secret in women's health -- women, too, can have heart attacks.

Possibly due to a lack of diagnosis, or just how often men suffer from heart attacks, women can be caught off guard when they suffer from heart attacks or learn that they are at risk.

Just ask Amy Heinl, a survivor of a heart attack.

"I really couldn't believe this happened to me. I thought of myself as a healthy person, and was exercising when my heart attack happened," Heinl said.

Heinl wasn't and isn't alone in showing near disbelief when suffering a heart attack. One of the greatest risks to women experiencing a heart attack is, for whatever reason, not recognizing it for what it is.

Disbelief, lacking awareness, inability to recognize symptoms or dismissing them can be fatal delays. That's why it's so important that women be able to recognize a heart attack, so they can act quickly in order to protect their health and to protect their family members and friends who would lose a loved one.

Heart disease is the number one killer of women in the United States. What can make it so difficult to diagnose is that it targets more than just the "usual suspects" of smokers and women who struggle with high weight or stress levels. Healthy and fit women can be just as at-risk. So, if you notice any of the symptoms -- whether you're on the sofa or the second half of a marathon -- take them seriously.

According to the American Heart Association, women's heart attack symptoms include:

  • Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath, with or without chest discomfort.
  • Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.

And here's where things get dangerous, because the surprise of the symptoms -- much like Heinl noted -- can lead women to ignore them or not recognize the danger.

Call 911 immediately, follow the instructions of the operator, and get to a hospital as soon as possible. Wait for the ambulance and take slow, calming breaths.

Nobody wants to have a heart attack, and, sadly, heart attacks aren't the kind of thing we can be certain to prevent. It's possible to limit their threat by being active and eating a healthy diet, and most importantly, by being aware and ready to take action in order to take the best care of yourself.

This story was written for our sponsor, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina.