Women and Heart Attacks

By Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum | Posted Jun 28, 2022

Every year, 735,000 Americans have a heart attack. Of those, 625,000 are first-time attacks and 110,000 are recurrent attacks. And while both men and women can suffer from a heart attack, there are some key differences between the two sexes when it comes to symptoms, timing, and seeking help.

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Heart attack symptoms in men vs. women

One of the most striking differences between heart attacks in men and women is the symptoms. While chest pain is still the most common symptom of a heart attack in both sexes, women are more likely than men to experience shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain.

In one study of nearly 500 heart attack patients, 72 percent of the women reported at least one “atypical” symptom (i.e., not chest pain), compared to just 46 percent of the men. This difference may be due in part to the fact that women’s hearts tend to be smaller than men’s hearts, which can make it more difficult for blockages to be detected. 

Another key difference is that while men tend to experience a sudden onset of symptoms, women are more likely than men to have gradual or intermittent symptoms that come and go over time. This difference may account for why women are more likely than men to delay seeking help; they may not realize that their symptoms are serious enough to warrant a trip to the hospital.

During a heart attack, timing is everything.

Unfortunately, this delayed response can have deadly consequences. A study of 1,500 heart attack patients found that while 54 percent of the men waited more than 90 minutes before going to the hospital or calling 911, a full 72 percent of the women waited that long. And slightly more than half of the women called a relative or friend before dialing 911 or going to a hospital (compared to just 36 percent of the men).

When it comes to heart attacks, every minute counts—and yet, many women delay seeking help because they don’t realize that their symptoms could be warning signs of a heart attack. If you think you might be having a heart attack, don’t wait; call 911 immediately. And if you’re not sure whether your symptoms are serious enough to warrant a trip to the hospital, err on the side of caution and go anyway; it could save your life.