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Heart Disease

It's the leading killer of women. Are you at risk?

Different Symptoms Also Delay Diagnosis

"Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens more often than we would like because sometimes the symptoms of a heart attack in women aren't as obvious," Goldberg says. "Even though I know better, when I think of what a heart attack looks like, I think of the picture they showed us in medical school: a middle-aged businessman in a suit, clutching at his heart."

The reality is that women having heart attacks often experience different symptoms than men. Instead of the traditional pain in the center of the chest, women may feel pain in the lower portion of the abdomen, back, jaw, or neck.

Because they may not perceive their pain as a heart attack, women often don't get to the hospital in time. Or they may describe their pain as a backache or stomachache, potentially leading the diagnosis in another direction, Goldberg says.

One solution may be to raise women's awareness that they, like men, are at risk for heart disease, including heart attacks. "The AHA is trying to get that message out there to both women and doctors," Goldberg says.

Preventing Misdiagnosis

Lack of awareness is one reason White and her doctors didn't immediately recognize her heart attack. It's especially important for a heart attack to be diagnosed early, as the consequences of a delayed diagnosis can be serious. "Sometimes with a heart attack, all the damage that is going to be done is done within four to six hours. In other cases, there may be ongoing damage," says David Herrington, MD, associate professor of medicine and cardiology at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C. "In either case, we do know early treatment can help prevent some of the damage."

If a heart attack is diagnosed within the first few hours, blood clot-busting medications and artery-opening surgical procedures can restore blood flow to damaged heart tissue, Goldberg says. How can women make sure they get this treatment? By not being timid. Describe your symptoms clearly, ask for testing if it isn't offered, and be sure you understand all your treatment options, she says.

The Long Road to Recovery

After Betty White was finally diagnosed with a heart attack, her doctors put a stent (a small, wire-mesh tube) into an artery supplying her heart. The stent holds the damaged artery open, so as to save as much of the remaining live heart tissue as possible. "It's been a long haul since then," White says. She doesn't have the get up and go she once did, perhaps because of the reduced amount of oxygen-rich blood traveling through her body, says Goldberg.

But White hopes her story will help other women be on the lookout for heart attacks and have the courage to speak up when they feel something has been missed. "I have the feeling there are other women just like me all over the country," she says. "Sadly, a lot of them didn't live to tell the tale. So I'm speaking for all of us: This just has to stop."

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