In the United States, heart attacks are the leading cause of death in both men and women, but there are surprising gender-specific differences not only in symptoms, but in death rates.

Women are more likely to die from a heart attack.

More than twice the number of women die from heart related medical issues than from all forms of cancer combined. A woman is more than ten times as likely to die from a heart attack than she is from breast cancer – and an astonishing 40% of women do not survive their first heart attack. What are some of the possible reasons for this?

Symptoms of heart attack are different.

The common symptoms, such as chest pain and shortness of breath, are found in both genders – but there is a broader range spectrum of symptoms in women. These can include:

  • Pain in the middle or upper back
  • Pain in the jaw
  • Loss of appetite
  • A cold sweat
  • Weakness
  • Coughing
  • Dizziness
  • Vomiting
  • Extreme fatigue

The absence of chest pain can cause treatment delay and misdiagnosis – which obviously can be life-threatening.

There are physical differences in men and women’s hearts.

Women’s hearts beat faster, are smaller, and their arteries are smaller and lighter as well. This makes testing and surgeries more difficult to do. Also, women tend to have more complications following a surgery. Many researchers believe that it takes a woman’s heart longer to relax after each beat. Hormonal difference may also be at play – women that are post menopause have higher rates of heart attacks than do younger women and men. It is believed that the hormones in women prior to menopause have a regulating effect on metabolic factors. There are many studies underway to learn more about each of these differences.

Diagnostics are not as accurate for women.

Exercise stress tests often do not pick up single-vessel heart disease, which is more common in women than men. To improve accuracy, combine the exercise stress test with a stress echocardiogram. The ultrasound imaging of the heart during exercise provides far more information about muscle and valve function and the condition of the arteries, which are the blood supply for the heart. Echocardiography uses sound waves, which help avoid inaccurate readings due to breast tissue.

Ladies, we need to be careful. Don’t ignore symptoms, no matter how vague they appear to be. Don’t let medical staff brush you off – if you feel something is wrong and your doctor disagrees – go get a second opinion. Don’t put it off – your life may be on the line.