Young Women Don’t Spot Heart Symptoms
Many Don’t Recognize Their Risk for Heart Disease
May 10, 2007 -- Many women in the U.S. die from heart attacks each year, yet
younger women often fail to recognize their risk, a new study suggests.
Researchers interviewed 24 female heart attack survivors who were aged 55
and younger while the women were still hospitalized. Nine out of 10
reported experiencing severe chest pain during the event, but only four
of 10 perceived the problem as heart related.
Researcher Judith Lichtman, PhD, of Yale School of Medicine, tells WebMD
that many of the women thought they had indigestion or heartburn.
“Women in this [55 and younger] age group often assume they are not at risk
for heart disease,” she says.
Not Just Your Grandmother’s Disease
Heart disease is generally considered an older women’s condition, and to a
large extent this is true.
Women aged 55 and younger account for less than 5% of hospitalizations for
heart-related causes each year in the U.S., Lichtman says. And of the
half-million annual heart-related deaths among women in this country, just
16,000 occur in younger women.
Though the number is comparatively small, Lichtman points out that heart
disease is still a leading cause of death among younger women.
“The number of young women who die from coronary heart disease each year is
roughly comparable to the number of women who die of breast cancer in this age
group,” she states in a news release.
Family History Important
The women enrolled in the small pilot study were interviewed to determine
their perceived risk for heart disease prior to the event, the symptoms they
experienced during their heart attack, and their response to these
The findings were presented this week at an American Heart Association
meeting on cardiovascular disease care in Washington.
Among the major findings:
- Most of the women (88%) reported having some degree of chest pain. More
than half (58%) also experienced pain in the jaw or shoulder; 38% experience
sweating, 29% had nausea, and 29% had shortness of breath.
- 88% of the women had a parent or sibling with heart disease.
- 71% described their overall health as fair or poor, but fewer than half
considered themselves at risk for heart disease.
- More than half (54%) had a history of high blood pressure, 42% had high
cholesterol, 21% had diabetes, and 30% were current smokers, all of which are
risk factors for coronary heart disease.
- Most of the women were overweight or obese. Their average body mass index
score was 34. A BMI of 30 or above is considered obese.
“It is clear that risk factors like obesity, diabetes, and high blood
pressure play a big role in these early heart attacks, and family history is
extremely important,” says American Heart Association spokesman David Goff,
A professor of public health sciences and internal medicine at Wake Forest
University School of Medicine, Goff tells WebMD that heart attacks in women
under age 40 are extremely uncommon, unless there is a strong family history of
heart disease or high cholesterol.
“Certainly one message is that women with these risk factors should never
ignore symptoms,” he says. “If they have chest discomfort that lasts more than
10 or 15 minutes, they need to get it checked out. They also need to be
aggressive about lowering their risk by keeping their blood pressure and
cholesterol under control and stopping smoking.”