You might think you know what a heart attack looks like, but heart attacks don’t always stick to the script as they’re depicted in movies and television.
If you’re experiencing signs and symptoms of a heart attack, call 911 immediately.

Symptoms of a heart attack may present differently in a man versus a woman. When “time is muscle” knowing the classic and associated symptoms of a heart attack, as well as less common symptoms, can help lessen damage and potentially save your life.

A heart attack occurs when the blood flow to a part of the heart is blocked by a blood clot. If this clot cuts off the blood flow completely, the part of the heart muscle supplied by that artery begins to die. Long thought to be something that affects men more than women, heart attacks and strokes are now understood to be equal opportunity afflictions. In fact, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women and 90 percent of women have one or more risk factors for a stroke or heart disease.

A 15-year study revealed that while awareness of the risks has increased among women, it still lags among young women and minorities. In 2012, 56 percent of women identified heart disease as a leading cause of death (only 30 percent did so in 1997), but women ages 25-34 had the lowest awareness rate in regards to heart disease of any group of women at 44 percent.

Fewer women than men survive heart attacks, too, which makes it even more important to understand that the symptoms of a heart attack and stroke can be quite different for women.

Classic heart attack symptoms include:

  • Chest discomfort or pain in the upper chest
  • Pressure in the chest. Many people describe it as something “sitting” on their chest
  • Pain in left arm or sometimes up the right arm
  • Pain between the shoulder blades

While these symptoms don’t only affect men, more men than women report having these symptoms. Actually, fewer than 30 percent of women report having chest pain or discomfort prior to their heart attacks, and 43 percent report having no chest pain at all.

Other symptoms associated with a cardiac event include:

  • Unexplained sweating
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness

In addition to or in spite of the symptoms listed above, women often report having shortness of breath, the feeling of heartburn or back or jaw pain. National Institutes of Health research indicates that women often experience new or different physical symptoms as much as a month or more before having the heart attack. Even with that much time, it can be easier for women to focus on others than their own health.

“Many times, women get busy with work, kids and life in general and they frequently minimize their symptoms,” says Brandie Williams, M.D., a cardiologist on the medical staff at Texas Health Stephenville and at Texas Health Heart & Vascular Specialists, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice. “Therefore, they don’t seek medical care until it’s too late, so it’s very important for women to pay attention to their bodies and seek medical care if something doesn’t seem right.”

So how do you keep on top of your heart health? The American Heart Association recommends the following to manage your risk factors:

  • Know your blood pressure and get treatment if it’s high
  • Know your cholesterol level and take steps to reduce it if necessary
  • Check for diabetes, and if you have it, treat it appropriately
  • Don’t smoke, and quit if you do
  • Work on a healthy diet, and be sure to exercise

“Stress reduction is another important part of preventing cardiovascular disease,” Williams adds. “Participating in activities such as yoga and exercise helps reduce stress. Laughter is also a powerful stress reducer by reducing stress hormones and lowering the blood pressure.”

Time is Muscle

While not all of the symptoms listed above may happen during a heart attack, if you are not sure if it is a heart attack, call 911 immediately. Remember, time is muscle and every minute counts. A delay in response times for treatment has been found for both genders, but women tend to wait 37 minutes longer to seek treatment for a heart attack compared to men. According to the American Heart Association, every year, tens of thousands of Americans survive a heart attack, go back to work and enjoy a normal life.

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