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Heart Attack Warning Signs Different for Women

PHOTO: Gail Alexander-Wright had a heart attack at age 37.
PHOTO: Gail Alexander-Wright had a heart attack at age 37.
February 26, 2013

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - A sharp pain or a tight feeling in the chest, and shortness of breath. By now, most of us have been briefed on the warning signs of a heart attack, but according to the American Heart Association, those are typical signs of a heart attack for men, and the signs are usually quite different for women.

According to Teri Arnold, director of marketing and communications for the American Heart Association, Mid-Atlantic Affiliate, in Virginia Beach, too often, women don't recognize the signs of a heart attack and ignore the symptoms, which can often mimic the flu.

"It could be a pain in your neck, could be a pain in your jaw, a pain in your back, nausea," Arnold said. "Sometimes women have a shortness of breath for a number of weeks and don't realize that it has something to do with their heart."

Arnold said that more women die from heart disease now than men, and awareness of risk factors and symptoms is key, something that Gail Alexander-Wright is keenly aware of. She suffered a heart attack at age 37 a few years ago, after having had symptoms for weeks.

"I had pain in the left side of my neck for three weeks straight; it would go away, come back, go away, come back, and then the tightening of the jaw on and off for three weeks," she recalled.

Teri Arnold said there are many misconceptions about women and heart disease, such as that you have to be older to have a heart attack, or they're not common for women, even if you have a family history of heart disease and heart attacks. She said many doctors and hospitals have been slow to keep up with the new realities for women.

"I've heard many, many instances of women that are having the signs and symptoms of a heart attack," Arnold declared. "They go into the ER and they are told, well you're having a panic attack, you're too young to have heart disease, you have asthma."

Arnold said women need to be their own advocates and ask their doctors for tests, especially if you have a family history; be sure to let your primary care physician know. She said the AHA is working on educating doctors and hospitals about the risk factors for women.

The AHA recommends that you know your numbers. Visit the doctor at least once a year to know your blood pressure, your fasting blood glucose levels, your cholesterol levels and your weight. All can be risk factors for heart disease, and all can be controlled, thus preventing a possible future heart attack.

Monique Coppola, Public News Service - VA