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Heart Attacks Hit Middle-Aged Women

Heart attack risk is rising in U.S. women -- decades earlier than you might expect. Find out why, and what women can do about it.

Heart Attack Hazard: Missed Diagnosis

The rise in heart attacks among middle-aged women may be partly due to the fact that doctors are getting better at diagnosing them.

In 2003, a study published in Circulation showed that female heart attack patients may not suffer the typical symptom of acute chest pain. Instead, they were more likely to have weakness, breathlessness, and fatigue. Nausea, dizziness, feelings of indigestion, and back pain were also linked to women's heart attacks. Doctors and heart organizations got the message out that women's heart attack symptoms can differ from men's heart attack symptoms.

Then in 2009, a Canadian study of 305 men and women showed that both sexes were equally likely to report chest discomfort and other typical heart attack symptoms.

The issue still isn't settled. "But we’re pretty much coming around to realizing the symptoms can be similar," Rita Redberg, MD, MSc, director of women's cardiovascular services at the University of California, San Francisco, tells WebMD.

The bottom line, experts say, is that women should tell doctors about all of their symptoms.

A bigger problem is that women are less likely to think they're having a heart attack and seek care, Redberg says.

Take Rench, now 52, for example. Since her first heart attack, she has had two others, yet still failed to recognize the symptoms when they first struck.

"I was doing aerobics when I felt a pain in my chest and thought I had just pulled a muscle," she says of her second attack. When she had her third heart attack, which occurred in 2009, "I was cleaning house and I felt butterflies in my stomach, flutters in my chest. But I continued cleaning for hours," she says. It wasn't until that night, around 9 p.m., that Rench finally went to the emergency room.

If you think you may be having a heart attack, act right away, Daviglus says. "If you have pain, breathlessness, or other symptoms, call 911," she says. "Women tend to dismiss pain, saying, 'This will pass. It's probably nothing."'

And although Rench drove herself to the hospital when she had her first heart attack, don't do that yourself. Call 911 instead; this is no time to get behind the wheel.

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