Women Having Heart Attacks Often Slow to Get Help

Recognize the warning signs, which can be different in women than in men.

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I think I've written "heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women" in at least two dozen articles over the past decade. Yet many women still haven't gotten the message that heart attacks strike them as often as men—albeit usually a decade later. At an American Heart Association meeting held today, Yale researchers reported that women in their 40's and 50's who suffered heart attacks often delayed getting treatment because they didn't think they were having one. While it's true women under 60 make up only 5 percent of heart disease patients, the researchers point out that this translates into 16,000 deaths and 40,000 hospitalizations every year. Plus, more young women appear to be dying from heart disease, according to a British study published today, possibly because of increased rates of smoking, obesity, and diabetes.

Here's a list of heart attack warning signs in women from most common to least common, based on a previous study of young female heart attack patients conducted by the same researchers.

  • Chest pain: 90 percent of women experience it
  • Pain in the jaw or shoulder: 58 percent
  • Sweating: 38 percent
  • Nausea: 29 percent
  • Shortness of breath: 29 percent
  • Indigestion and heartburn: 21 percent
  • Weakness or fatigue: 8 percent
  • My colleague Katherine Hobson has written on how women can assess their own heart attack risk, as well as on heart screening tests that benefit women most.