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Heart attacks in women: Protecting yourself

Heart attacks affect everyone differently. As women, our symptoms of such an ailment as well as the tactics that may prevent it can be vastly different than those of a man. Because our situation can be so different than what is commonly portrayed — it’s important to get all the information you can on the subject.

Symptoms and prevention
Woman having a heart attack

Heart attacks explained

A heart attack occurs when the blood that brings oxygen to the heart is severely blocked or completely cut off. This is caused by a build up in the arteries of fat/cholesterol which forms a plaque. When this builds up so much that it completely blocks the flow of blood or it rips off and clogs further down the artery, a portion of the heart muscle is cut off from oxygen and begins to die.


Many people know to look for chest pressure in order to catch a heart attack. But what they don’t know is women can experience a heart attack without that pressure. Instead, Nieca Goldberg, M.D. tells the American Heart Association they might experience some of the following symptoms:

  • pressure in the lower chest, upper abdomen and/or upper back
  • pain in the arms, shoulders, jaw, back, neck or stomach
  • shortness of breath
  • dizziness
  • lightheadedness/fainting
  • extreme fatigue
  • a feeling similar to heartburn/indegestion

The pressure can last for an extended period of time or go away and come back and is commonly compared to the feeling of an elephant sitting on one’s chest. The signs might be considerably more subtle but just as dangerous as the more obvious symptoms commonly seen in men. Women are particularly likely to experience extreme shortness of breath seemingly out of the blue as well as nausea or vomiting and back or jaw pain.

Because many of the signs are symptoms women experience with other more mundane illnesses, they frequently attribute them to something else such as acid reflux or a virus and don’t seek help soon enough.


Because everyone is different, it is best to talk to your family doctor or regular healthcare provider for more information on what your particular risks are. Individuals particularly at risk are those with a family history as well as smokers, diabetics and those with high cholesterol or hypertension. Some of the basic things you will likely be recommended to do are to take part in light exercise such as a 30 minute walk a day. If you are a smoker, quitting will also be extremely beneficial. Just a year after quitting, your chance of a coronary heart attack goes down by 50 percent. Because heart attacks are caused by the build up of fat/cholesterol in your arteries, it may be suggested that you make some changes in your diet in order to reduce your intake of foods that contain high amounts of such products. Although there are treatments for heart attacks, prevention is always your best option. So speak with your doctor and check out the Heart and Stroke Foundation for more information.

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