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How Heart Disease is Different in Women

Posted by David Cheatham, February 11, 2020

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the world, but scientists are still learning about the condition. In particular, gender differences in presentation of symptoms has become a popular area of research as of late.

Women feel a heart attack more quickly. Women have what doctors call a “heightened somatic awareness”, or the ability to feel pain sooner. However, this type of pain can begin as a feeling of something “off” or “different”, rather than what we typically consider pain. So while women might know that something is doing wrong much more quickly than men, with regard to a heart attack, the sensation is much less specific.

Women feel different symptoms during a heart attack. Whereas men feel localized and sometimes severe pain during a heart attack, women might not suddenly clutch their chest and complain of the ache.

Instead, a heart attack might feel like general discomfort to a woman. She might wonder if she’s coming down with the flu, or suffering indigestion. Pain, if it’s present, might present in the shoulder or jaw. Nausea, lightheadedness, or a cold sweat might also occur.

Similar conditions strike women more often. Women are more likely to have tears in their coronary arteries, or an inflammation of the heart called myocarditis. And because women tend to have smaller hearts and blood vessels, a condition called microvascular disease strikes them more often. All of these conditions can produce symptoms that are very similar to a heart attack. Women should be screened carefully for conditions that mimic heart attack but require different treatment.

Prevention is still the best medicine. Anyone experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, no matter how minor, should seek emergency attention immediately. But as with any other health condition, prevention is still the best medicine. Seek regular preventive care and talk to your physician about ways to keep your heart healthy before a problem strikes.

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