The Hidden Heart Attack: New Study Explores How Women Are Missing the Signs of a Cardiac Event

By , Melissa Rudy, Health & Fitness Journalist
When most of us think of someone having a heart attack, we picture the typical movie or TV version, where the person grabs his or her chest and falls to the ground. But in reality, a cardiac event rarely occurs in such a dramatic fashion. In fact, you could very well chalk the symptoms up to a case of indigestion.

The American Heart Association reports that heart disease is the number one killer of women, claiming the life of one woman every 80 seconds. A staggering 90 percent of females have at least one risk factor (such as high blood pressure, obesity or a smoking habit). But according to new research released by Treato, a healthcare analytics site that compiles billions of patient experiences each year, most women don't recognize a heart attack when it happens to them.

Missing the Signs

In this study, Treato analyzed more than 600 iterations of women discussing heart disease on more than 170 websites. The findings revealed a common pattern: A majority of females completely missed the signs of their cardiac event, often receiving treatment long after the episode.

In fact, women wait an average of 38 hours longer than men to seek medical attention following a heart-related event. That could be because women's symptoms are typically not as obvious as men's, according to Dr. Annabelle Santos Volgman, cardiologist at Rush University Medical Center.

According to Treato, when women found out they'd had a heart attack, most had one of three reactions: "Certainly this couldn't be happening to me," "How did this happen?" and "Better late than never (to get healthy)." Common topics of discussion on the analyzed websites included heart surgery (33 percent) and blood pressure (32 percent).

Symptoms and Triggers

Among the women who didn't recognize their heart attack, most assumed they were just experiencing dizziness, heartburn or indigestion, and never had any chest pain. Many younger, healthy, non-smoking women never considered that they could be having a heart attack, as they felt they didn't match the at-risk profile. When reflecting back on their cardiac event, many women identified stress as the biggest trigger, followed by poor diet, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity and family history.

If you experience any of these common symptoms of a heart attack, call 911 immediately:
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Persistent pressure, pain or tightness in the chest
  • Pain in the jaw, back, neck, shoulders or one or both arms
  • Nausea, dizziness or excessive sweating
  • Extreme fatigue or weakness
The 911 operator may recommend that you take an aspirin, which thins the blood and prevents clots from forming. Otherwise, the emergency responders may give you an aspirin when they arrive.

Looking Ahead to a Healthier Future

Another common thread in women's online discussions about heart disease was a strong desire to adopt healthier lifestyles. Many seemed empowered by their close call, and expressed their intentions to eat better and exercise more often.

"It's clear that there's a major education opportunity when it comes to women's heart health," says Ido Hadari, CEO of Treato, in a press release. "Social data analytics have the potential to uncover significant population health challenges that need to be addressed by healthcare professionals."

According to the AHA, 80 percent of heart attacks and strokes can be prevented by lifestyle changes and education. The best weapon against heart disease is knowledge. Visit our Healthy Heart Center to learn more about symptoms, prevention and treatment.

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I have these symptoms quite a bit, and as someone who has suffered anxiety issues since the age of 5, I can definitely rule it out. As a rule, most doctors tend to ignore women, calling us everything from over-dramatic to hypochondriacs. It took me years to get them to realize I had an arrhythmia. as well as a murmur. I have chest pains quite a bit, and pain in my arms and shoulders and neck, just about every day. Doctor's don't care. I'm 36 and have been told, more than once that I'm "too young" to have heart problems, when it's just blatantly obvious that they don't give a crap whether or not I live or die. What's the point of knowing the symptoms, if no doctor will ever take you seriously? Report
Doctors ignore women who present with the issues that have been named as heart attack signs in women. SP also missed a big one for women, feeling extremely anxious and heartburn/indigestion. When I took in my mother, the RN asked about heartburn and stated she had just cared for a lady who presented with intense heartburn, it was a heart attack. I find though ER tends to ignore women. The last time I took in my mother - who has history of angina and has a narrowed artery - they said she was having an anxiety attack. They only did the ECG when I insisted that it be done, to rule out any heart issues. The ER doctor said he didn't like the changes on the ECG, but it wasn't enough to say she was having any heart issues. It's all been dismissed as "anxiety" and while my mother is satisfied, I'm not. It seems too easy to dismiss women as anxiety, when it's actually a physical issue. Report
I had a heart attack 13.5 years ago. It was after lunch and I didn't feel well, so I went to the lounge to lay down for 15 minutes. When I laid down, I felt worse than when I was sitting up and for some reason it triggered alarm bells. I asked one of my co-workers for an aspirin and she notified our manager, who called 911. Report
I am right there with you RedRobin. I do the exact same thing. Last time I had real bad pressure, I went to the ER and it turned out to be Acid reflux. I try not to worry about it as much, but I don't want to ignore it either. Report
I didn't even find out I had a mild heart attack until about a year ago. My doctor sent me for a stress test & sonogram of my heart as a routine checkup since I was overweight & had high blood pressure. Test results showed I had a heart attack but I don't even know when. Now, every twinge I have in my left chest area scares me. I can't go to the ER every time I feel something. Report
Good to know... but also important to note these could also be signs of an anxiety attack. I experience them regularly, unfortunately :( Report
I agree with UrbanAudreye, this sounds exactly like the symptoms of an anxiety attack... Report
I had my attack at age 47. My symptom was pain in both arms that wouldn't go away and mild indigestion. Due to family history I went to get checked out at the ER fully expecting they would say I was fine. I'm so glad I went and was immediately treated. I have no heart damage.

The bottom line is get checked out if there is a possibility of a heart problem. Better safe than sorry.
The only problem is I have those symptoms every time I have an anxiety attack. Report
My symptoms weren't that obvious: chest discomfort, dizzy & lightheaded and a feeling of being out of my body. I went to the ER immediately and was told I was having a heart attack. Rushed by ambulance to the cath lab. Lucky that there was no damage. If you feel "off" get to the ER. Report