Heart Disease: Women Can Miss the Warning Signs

Women can miss the subtle signs and symptoms of heart attacks.

ByABC News
February 4, 2013, 1:29 PM

Feb. 6, 2013— -- Every single day, I take care of women. As their primary care physician, it is my duty -- and my privilege -- to take care of the whole woman, not just a set of organs or body parts. So, even though I am their gynecologist, I see it as my responsibility to discuss heart disease with my patients.

As the No. 1 killer of women, heart disease is a bullet we must all dodge. But despite the fact that many of us have heard this statistic, only one in three of us thinks it applies to us. Unfortunately, it applies to all of us.

Celebrities with heart disease

Most of my patients are the hub of their families; the glue that keeps everything together; the captain of the team; the person who runs the household and cares for everyone else. Think about how busy you are, and now think about what life would be like if something happened. What would your family do without you?

Knowing the signs and symptoms of a heart attack can save your life. But they can be subtle, and sometimes indicate something other than a heart attack. In medicine, it is always smart to put the worst case scenario at the top of the list. So with that understanding, here they are:

Chest Pain, Pressure or Tightness

This is the most common symptom of a heart attack in women, as it is in men. But the description of this pain can differ slightly in women. It can be described as dull or uncomfortable pain, whereas men often feel the classic pressure of an "elephant sitting on their chest" or squeezing behind the sternum or breastbone.

Women experiencing chest pain or discomfort are likely to take an aspirin but not to call 911, according to the American Heart Association. But chest pain bad enough to lead a woman to take an aspirin should be followed by a call to 911.

Flu-Like Symptoms

Heart attacks in women tend to produce symptoms that are vague in nature and even resemble that of a virus like the flu, such as fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness and difficulty sleeping.

These symptoms in women often go unreported because women tend to be accustomed to functioning with a variety of aches, pains and physical complaints and also tend to put others first. I also see many patients who attribute these kinds of complaints to hormonal issues such as menopause, and never think of their hearts.

Take This to Heart

While we don't understand why men and women seem to experience heart attacks in slightly different ways, we do have some medical theories. Differences in heart attacks between the sexes may be due to hormonal factors or to the size of the blood vessels that supply the heart muscle, for example.

More research between gender differences in heart disease is always ongoing, but for now, we now that recognizing the signs and symptoms of a heart attack is something that every woman needs to know.

For more information, visit the American Heart Association.

Dr. Jennifer Ashton is ABC News' senior medical contributor.