Author: Tracey McAlpine Category: Health, Heart Health, Women's Health

Tackling the misconceptions of heart attacks in women

A new survey has announced that millions of women are still not aware of common heart attacks symptoms which is very alarming.

Research of 2,000 women by vitamin and supplement brand Healthspan found 87 per cent of women would associate chest pains or discomfort with having a heart attack, while only 57 per cent recognise profuse and unexplained sweating as a possible symptom.

Latest figures show that twice as many women die of coronary heart disease each year than breast cancer in the UK.  Yet, awareness among women is low, which often means they delay seeking urgent medical help if they experience the symptoms of a heart attack.

For many heart attacks are silent

The ‘Hollywood heart attack’, in which a victim grimaces and clutches his chest is less common in real life.  Silent heart attacks are surprisingly common, with studies suggesting that they could account for between 22% and 60% of all heart attacks.  One recent study from the US, following 9,498 people, found that over 45% of heart attacks were silent – defined as ECG evidence of previous heart muscle death with no history of an associated hospital admission in the medical records.

A silent heart attack occurs in the same way as a ‘regular’ heart attack when blood supply to the heart muscle suddenly becomes compromised, usually by a blood clot.  Some people may not experience typical symptoms of chest pain due to individual differences in nerve supply or pain thresholds, which may be genetic or due to conditions such as diabetes which affects sensory nerves.

Discomfort may be felt in the back, stomach, arm or jaw, for example, and not attributed to the heart.  Elderly people in particular may have no pain and only have insidious feelings of fatigue, indigestion, chest discomfort (rather than pain) and an urgent need to empty the bowels.

Dr Sarah Brewer, Medical Director at Healthspan, which commissioned the research, said: “Many are aware that heart attacks are something men need to be concerned about, but there is a huge misconception among women that they aren’t at risk.  “Not only is this wrong, but it could be the difference between life and death for some if they don’t take symptoms or the risk of a heart attack seriously.”

Many others were unaware back pain (80%), feeling sick (64%) or feeling light-headed (59%) could also be a signal of a heart attack.  The recent study, carried out via OnePoll, also found three in 100 of those polled have suffered from a heart attack.

It also emerged 33 per cent of women have suffered from chest pains, but only around half of them got them checked out by a GP.  Of those who didn’t seek medical advice, 58 per cent felt it wasn’t anything serious, while 24 per cent didn’t want to waste their doctor’s time.

Women’s heart disease risk factors

Dr Ameet Bakhai, a Consultant  Cardiologist at The Spire Bushey Hospital  says “The risk of women having a heart attack increases for women once they have gone through the menopause due in part to a reduction in oestrogen and more than one in 10 in the survey didn’t realise this plus, a common misconception is that by being on HRT, women are protected from heart disease and unfortunately that’s not a straight forward assumption either.  The research around this has shown some benefits and some risks unfortunately”.

“Women are also not aware that they have a higher chance of suffering from a heart attack if their male partner has had a heart attack, given that husbands and wives often share the same behavioural risk factors and environmental factors such as smoking or sedentary lifestyle.”  Additionally, the stress of looking after a husband dying or surviving a heart attack, affects the wife caregiver negatively and increases their own risk of health issues, worsened by anxiety and depression.

Women’s symptoms are often milder, they can arise later in the illness and they can be unusual.  One third of women with heart disease will experience no chest pain at all.

Women don’t automatically experience the crippling chest pain and are as likely to suffer with pain in the arm, shortness of breath and feel sick, sweaty and dizzy.  Others report feeling extreme tiredness and sudden panic and confusion.  In short, the symptoms can sometimes be subtle and difficult to pinpoint.

What you can do to reduce your risk of heart disease

Changing jobs or reducing stress, cutting back on cigarettes and alcohol and taking supplements are also among the way’s women try to improve their lifestyle to minimise the risk of heart problems. By reducing just two inches from your waist through diet and exercise can reduce your risk of chronic heart disease by around 10-15%

Dr Ameet Bakhai says, “Regular check-ups and screening is vital and the Healthspan survey showed that 69% of people who took the survey were already on a statin to lower their cholesterol.  Many people self-medicate due to the side effects of statins which isn’t always without risk but there are solutions that research has shown can counteract the muscular aches and fatigue that some patients experience.  For example, for some patients I recommend Co-enzyme Q10 supplements such as Ubiquinol* (the body ready form of Coenzyme Q10).  A summary of careful review of the research showed that this form of supplementation may be a complementary approach to manage statin?induced myopathy or muscle aches.”

Chest pain or discomfort should always be taken seriously, and medical advice sought without delay.

To find out more about looking after you heart health visit: Healthspan – heart health*

Also visit the British Heart Foundation to find out the latest information on heart health and how to recognise the symptoms of heart attacks in women plus they have also launched a campaign this year called Bias & Biology to raise awareness.

* Affiliate link