Heart Attacks and Women: Disease Presents Differently by Gender

Awareness is growing about the ways in which heart disease affects women differently than men. A new study by the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality recently revealed that women are far more likely than men to be hospitalized for chest pain for which doctors can’t find a cause.

According to Rita Redberg, MD, cardiologist and director of UCSF’s Women’s Cardiovascular Services, “Women with chest pain are much more likely than men to have normal coronary arteries. We don’t always find out what causes it.”

Study data from 2006 showed that 100,000 more women than men were discharged from US hospitals with a diagnosis of nonspecific chest pain – the diagnosis given when patients are admitted for a possible heart attack, but end up not having one. The data raise the question, Might these chest pains have been early warning signs of an impending heart attack?

Both men and women report experiencing chest pain and tightness when having a heart attack, but women often experience subtle indications, as well, such as dizziness, nausea, breathlessness, aches, sudden weakness or fatigue, or an overwhelming feeling of doom. A 2003 study found that 95 percent of women who had heart attacks had started feeling some of those symptoms a month or more before.

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