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Women and Heart Attack

When a heart attack strikes, time is muscle. Getting medical assistance quickly is crucial to minimizing heart damage and preventing death.

Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of women in America. Unfortunately, A a study by the American Heart Association (AHA) found that only one-third of women identified heart disease as a leading cause of death for women, and only eight percent of the study participants viewed heart disease as their greatest health threat.

Know the symptoms

Compounding the problem is the fact that many women don’t recognize the symptoms of a heart attack. The same AHA study revealed that while 65 percent of women know that chest pain can be a heart attack symptom, only 30 percent knew that shortness of breath also is a symptom. More alarmingly, less than 10 percent of the women in the survey knew that nausea and fatigue are common symptoms among women who’ve experienced a heart attack.

Carmella McMullen - Heart Attack Survivor

"Every person experiences his or her own symptoms when having a heart attack," said Curt Rimmerman, M.D., F.A.C.C., who holds the Gus P. Karos Chair in Clinical Cardiovascular Medicine. "The symptoms aren’t gender-based. They might range from the typical —such as the feeling that an elephant is sitting on your chest or pain in your left arm — to general discomfort in the chest, nausea, fatigue, shortness of breath or even a tooth ache. A heart attack might present itself as an unusually rapid heart beat related to the level of exertion."

Stress imaging study recommended for women

While Dr. Rimmerman encourages women to learn the symptoms of a heart attack, he also recommends that they become more proactive and assertive about their cardiac care with their healthcare providers. He notes this is especially important when it comes to cardiac diagnostic tests.

"The EKG stress test is a good procedure for a man who’s resting EKG is normal," said Dr. Rimmerman. "But when performed on a woman, an EKG stress test tends to provide false positives. For female patients, we’ve found that a stress imaging study -- such as a radionucleide stress test or a stress echocardiography test — provides the best results and helps prevent unnecessary cardiac catheterizations."

Are you at increased risk?

Dr. Rimmerman noted that coronary risk factors - such as family history, smoking, inactivity, poor eating habits and excess weight - are the same for men and women, with one notable difference. The body's own estrogen seems to have a bit of a protective effect for women, slightly reducing their heart attack risk, but this protection disappears with menopause.

"Studies show that by age 70, men and women are equally at risk of dying from coronary artery disease," said Dr. Rimmerman. "We’ve also learned that post-menopausal women don’t tend to respond as well to bypass surgery, angioplasty, and stenting. We haven’t yet learned why this happens, which makes it more important that women recognize the symptoms of a heart attack and that they undergo pre-emptive screening.

What’s the best way for a woman to lessen her chances of dying from a heart attack? Exercise, eat well, don’t smoke and know her family’s heart health history. Most importantly, know the symptoms of a heart attack.

"If you suspect you might be having a heart attack, don’t delay. Get medical help as quickly as possible," emphasized Dr. Rimmerman. "The longer you wait, the more your heart muscle will suffer irreversible damage. When it comes to heart attacks, time truly is muscle."

Doctors vary in quality due to differences in training and experience; hospitals differ in the number of services available. The more complex your medical problem, the greater these differences in quality become and the more they matter.

Clearly, the doctor and hospital that you choose for complex, specialized medical care will have a direct impact on how well you do. To help you make this choice, please review our Miller Family Heart and Vascular Institute Outcomes.

Cleveland Clinic Heart and Vascular Institute Cardiologists and Surgeons

Choosing a doctor to treat your coronary artery disease depends on where you are in your diagnosis and treatment.

Click on the following links to learn more about Sections and Departments treat patients with Coronary Artery Disease:

The Miller Family Heart and Vascular Institute offers specialty centers and clinics for patients whose treatment requires the expertise of a group of doctors and surgeons who focus on a specific condition.

See: About Us to learn more about the Sydell and Arnold Miller Family Heart & Vascular Institute.

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If you need more information, click here to contact us, chat online with a nurse or call the Miller Family Heart and Vascular Institute Resource & Information Nurse at 216.445.9288 or toll-free at 866.289.6911. We would be happy to help you.

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Reviewed: 05/16

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