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Jan 27, 2017

Raising Awareness for Early Signs of Heart Attack

Most younger heart patients experience warning signs in the week before a heart attack but few take action, finds study.

Most young heart patients experience warning signs during the week before a heart attack but not all seek medical attention, based on a recent study that assessed sex differences in early heart attack symptoms.

Published in the British medical journal Heart, this study compared early symptoms of acute coronary syndrome in men and women.

Acute coronary syndrome is an umbrella term used to describe conditions like heart attack and unstable chest pain, which occur when there’s a lack of blood flow to the heart. Many times, there are early cardiac symptoms in the days or week before a patient experiences this type of event. Seeking immediate medical attention can improve survival and outcomes. However, awareness is lacking, and studies suggest that women may be less likely to recognize and report these symptoms than men.

To learn more, researchers analyzed data from the GENESIS PRAXY study, which tracks the health of patients treated for acute coronary syndrome at sites in Canada, Switzerland and the United States. A total of 1,145 patients were included in the study, all of whom were 55 or younger and experienced acute coronary syndrome between 2009 and 2013. Roughly one-third of participants were women.

Overall, most patients reported experiencing at least one warning sign of acute coronary syndrome in the week prior to their event. The most common symptoms were similar among men and women and included unusual fatigue, sleep disturbances, anxiety and arm weakness or discomfort. Chest pain was rare, with only one-quarter of participants experiencing this telltale symptom in the week prior to their heart event.

However, only 72% of men experienced early symptoms, compared to 85% of women. Women were also significantly more likely to seek medical care for these symptoms than men.

Authors also note that few patients started treatment after experiencing warning signs, with less than 40% of patients starting therapy such as blood pressure and cholesterol-lowering medication. The use of preventive treatment was similar among both men and women included in the study.

Findings are surprising, as they do not support the notion that young women are less likely to recognize early symptoms of heart attack than men. While women were more likely to experience early symptoms in this study, they were also more likely to seek help for these symptoms than men. Contrary to past studies that suggest women are less likely to receive preventive care, analysis also showed no differences in cardiovascular treatment among men and women.

Despite no major sex differences, authors note the need to improve preventive cardiovascular therapies in all patients. Studies show that early symptoms of acute coronary syndrome predict future heart events and taking steps to address risk factors may reduce cardiovascular risk. However, only 40% of patients with early warning signs were advised to start preventive therapy in this study. Thus, authors encourage increased use of treatment to help high-risk patients prevent potentially life-threatening events.

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.

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