Most people think that a heart attack presents with excruciating pain in the chest along with shortness of breath and severe discomfort travelling down the arm – the type of attack that is often televised in a hospital dramas, or seen on the big screen. This is true for some cases, but it does vary between gender – with women often experiencing no pain at all.
Over the years, there have been lots of different studies on men and women, including those that focussed on age and lifestyle. Whilst heart attacks can still occur with little to no precedent, it is clear that the following aspects of an unhealthy lifestyle can exacerbate the risk of a heart attack:
High blood pressure, and
High stress levels.
All of the above factors can lead to increased levels of cholesterol. This cholesterol stops healthy blood supply to the heart, and the coronary arteries clog up with cholesterol. These cholesterol pockets form areas called plaques and just before a heart attack, one of these plaques will burst. This creates a blood clot that stops the heart from receiving its blood supply, leading to heart attack.
Symptoms in Men and Women
Heart attack symptoms can definitely present themselves very differently in men and women, with women not displaying the classic symptoms of heart attack to the same extent as men. This lack of presentation often means there is greater risk of fatality for women, as many don’t even know what is happening when a heart attack occurs. We also know that men have more heart attacks than women – experts still don’t know exactly why – but more women die from their heart attacks than their male counterparts. Symptoms often include
Heaviness in the chest area;
A dull pain, ache, or mild discomfort in the chest area;
Pain likened to severe indigestion;
Pain that moves from the chest to the arm, back, and stomach;
Feelings of being light headed, dizzy, or nauseous;
Tingling in the limbs; and
A Genentech study on over 1 million men and women in the United States who experienced a heart attack between 1994 and 1996 found that more men who experience a heart attack feel distinct pain in their chest area when compared to women. Many women, particularly those under the age of 55, do not experience any pain in their chest area during heart attack. In fact, the younger the woman, the less chance of experiencing any chest pain at all, whereas both young men and older men do experience pain. Many women under the age of 55 may therefore not even realise they are having a heart attack. This is known as a “silent heart attack”.
Some women may experience a bearable level of pain or simply what they describe as mild discomfort. In light of this, members of the public are now encouraged to visit a hospital, no matter how mild the pain, if the sensation is something they have never experienced before, especially if they fall into the women under 55 age group – the age group with the highest fatality rate caused by heart attack. Heart attacks are also more common in young women that young men in general, with the average age of those who experience heart attacks being 74 for women, and 66 for men.
There are also occasions when heart attacks can occur with no symptoms at all. It is therefore very important that awareness of silent heart attacks is raised, especially in younger women who lead a particularly unhealthy lifestyle. There is a high-sensitivity blood test for the protein released from the heart during a heart attack – troponin – and this blood test helps to improve the diagnosis of heart attack, especially in females.