Though cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women, there are some important differences between the sexes when it comes specifically to heart attacks.
For instance, women generally suffer their first heart attack at an older age than men suffer their first. That doesn’t mean heart attacks are uncommon in women, though that is a frequent misconception, said Michelle Alikpala, a Marshfield Clinic Health System nurse practitioner in cardiology.
“Women need to be aware that heart attacks are a potential danger for them so they take the proper steps to protect against having one,” Alikpala said. “Risk varies from person to person based on their lifestyle, family history and other medical complications they may have.”
Recovery from a heart attack also tends to be harder on women than men. The American Heart Association found in a study that, “One year after their heart attack, women were more likely than men to have poorer physical functioning, poorer mental functioning, lower quality of life, more chest pain (and) worse physical limitations.”
Warning signs differ for women
While both men and women may suffer chest pain during a heart attack, women have some warning signs that men don’t experience as commonly.
Women could have atypical symptoms like shortness of breath, nausea, lightheadedness or breaking out in a cold sweat,” Alikpala said. “That’s why more recognition and awareness is important. Women need to know the possible signs of heart attack so they know when to seek medical help.”
Both men and women also can suffer what is known as a silent heart attack, which occurs with little or no obvious warning signs.
Smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes, stress and not getting enough exercise all contribute to heart attack risk in men and women. Postmenopausal hormone therapy in older women and birth control in younger women add some risk of heart attack in certain patients.
The bottom line
Every patient is unique in terms of lifestyle, family history and potential medical complications. That’s why it’s important to have regular visits with your primary care provider who helps monitor your health and personalize your care based on your unique needs.