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Sep 17, 2013

Heart Attack Symptoms Differ in Younger Men and Women

Gender differences in heart attack symptoms—especially for those under 55—highlight the importance of recognizing warning signs and seeking immediate care.

Acute coronary syndrome occurs when there is sudden, reduced blood flow to the heart. Usually a complication of plaque buildup in the arteries, this condition can cause a heart attack and requires immediate medical attention. But according to a recent study, many patients don’t experience chest pain—the tell-tale sign of a heart attack—leaving many to worry that these life-threatening conditions could be overlooked.

Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, this study explored gender differences in heart attack symptoms. Studies have already shown that women are more likely to have atypical symptoms of heart attack, but researchers hoped to identify what factors determine whether or not a patient will experience chest pain.

Unfortunately, it’s not very clear why certain individuals don’t experience chest pain when there’s reduced blood flow to the heart. This study included 1,015 patients 55 years or younger who were hospitalized for heart attack—one-third of whom were women.  Researchers used a survey tool to collect information on which of the 37 well-known heart attack symptoms each patient experienced, such as chest pain, shortness of breath, weakness and nausea.

After analyzing the data, researchers found that most patients experienced at least one of these symptoms and not surprisingly, chest pain was most common. However, 14% of men and 19% of women did not experience chest pain and these patients reported fewer symptoms overall compared to those who experienced chest pain. The only factors associated with experiencing chest pain were being a woman and having tachycardia (faster than normal heart rate), both of which doubled one’s likelihood of lacking chest pain during a heart attack.

The most important takeaways from this study are that women suffering a heart attack are nearly twice as likely to experience non-chest pain symptoms, such as weakness, flushing, back pain, right arm/shoulder pain, nausea, vomiting, headache, and neck or throat pain. And perhaps most important, these differences occurred in young women between the ages of 18 and 55, stressing why all patients—young and old—should be able to recognize heart attack symptoms. Women suffering heart attacks often overlook symptoms and are more likely to be misdiagnosed in a hospital, especially those younger than 55 years old. So not only is it important for healthcare providers to understand gender differences in heart attack symptoms, patients must also understand these symptoms (both typical and atypical) and seek immediate medical treatment in the event that they experience any signs of this condition.

Questions for You to Consider

  • What is acute coronary syndrome?
  • Acute coronary syndrome is an umbrella term used to describe situations where there is sudden, reduced blood flow to the heart. Acute coronary syndrome encompasses chest pain and heart attack, both of which can be serious and life-threatening.
  • How is acute coronary syndrome treated?

  • Acute coronary syndrome can be treated with a variety of medications and/or procedures, depending on how blocked the arteries are. Medications can include any combination of aspirin, thrombolytics, beta blockers, cholesterol-lowering drugs and ACE inhibitors, among others. Procedures can also help treat acute coronary syndrome, including angioplasty, stenting and coronary bypass surgery.

Featured Video

Women often experience heart attack symptoms differently than men. It's important for a woman to be able to recognize the symptoms of a heart attack and react quickly by calling 911.


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