What you must know about heart attacks in women.
Scary fact of the day: Heart disease kills six times more women than breast cancer every year and it’s the leading cause of death among women worldwide. Surprised? You’re not alone.
In a survey conducted by the American Heart Association, about half of the women interviewed knew that heart disease is the leading cause of death in women, yet only 13 per cent counted it as their greatest personal health risk.
There’s so little that’s known about this silent killer, particularly because women usually don’t experience the typical hand-over-heart chest pains that you see in movies. The truth is that heart disease can also manifest through many other symptoms. Dr Dinesh Nair, cardiologist at Mount Elizabeth Hospital, shares more on heart attacks in women below.
Are women more prone to heart attacks than men?
Dr Nair: Women have a lower risk of heart attacks compared to men in general. However, they tend to have more unusual symptoms. As a result, heart disease is more difficult to identify in women. Despite this, cardiovascular disease is actually the most common cause of death in women worldwide. However, this information is not as widely known as you would expect, as most women believe breast cancer is their biggest risk.
What are the little-known signs of heart attacks that women should watch for?
Dr Nair: Women and many health professionals often don’t recognise the symptoms of heart disease, mistaking them instead for signs of panic disorder, stress, and even menopausal symptoms. Many serious heart problems have been missed as a result.
Angina is chest pain caused by a reduction of blood flow to the heart muscle, usually from a blockage in the heart arteries. A heart attack occurs when angina persists and causes death of part of the heart muscle. Typical angina symptoms and atypical ones are listed below. Women tend to have more atypical symptoms.
Typical symptoms of heart attacks (angina):
– Heaviness, pressure or a squeezing sensation behind the breastbone with radiation across the chest, up the neck or down the left arm, or a “strangling” or “suffocating” sensation.
– Pain caused or worsened by exercise and eased by rest. Each bout usually lasts two to five minutes.
Atypical symptoms of heart attacks (frequently encountered in women):
– Shortness of breath
– Extreme fatigue
– Lightheadedness or fainting
– Nausea and/or indigestion
– Weakness in the arm
– Sleep disturbance
How are heart attacks diagnosed?
Dr Nair: A simple blood test can actually help to diagnose a heart attack. Troponins are protein molecules that are part of cardiac and skeletal muscle. Smooth muscle cells do not contain troponins. These proteins are released when the heart muscle has been damaged, such as in a heart attack. The more damage there is to the heart, the greater the amount of troponin T there will be in the blood.
While three are three types of troponins – troponin I, troponin T, and troponin C – each sub-unit has a unique function. Troponin T is the most commonly used.
A blood sample is needed to perform the test. The most common reason to perform this test is to see if a heart attack has occurred. Your doctor will order this test if you have chest pain and other signs of a heart attack. The test is usually repeated two more times over the next six to 24 hours.
Your doctor may also order this test if you have angina that is getting worse. The troponin test may also be done to help detect and evaluate other causes of heart injury. The test may be done along with other cardiac marker tests. Having normal troponin levels 12 hours after chest pain has started means a heart attack is unlikely. Troponin levels may remain high for one to two weeks after a heart attack.