Noticing the Subtle Signs of Heart Disease

heart in handHeart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. Each year approximately 600,000 people die from coronary illness in the United States, equaling one in four deaths.1

Knowing the symptoms of a possible heart attack is key to improving outcomes, but many people know only the major warning signs:

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Upper body pain or discomfort in the arms, back, neck, jaw or upper stomach
  • Shortness of breath

But heart attacks don’t always start with crushing chest pain. For instance, some people simply experience nausea or vomiting, or cold sweats and lightheadedness, easily attributed to another cause and often ignored for months.

Although more women than men die from heart disease each year, according to the American Heart Association, 43 percent of females are unaware that it’s the leading cause of death in women. One challenge is that their symptoms can be different from those in men. “In my practice, I find that my patients often present with signs of heart disease which they do not recognize due to the subtlety or inconclusive nature of the symptoms,” says Shawn Howell, MD, interventional cardiologist at The George Washington University Hospital.

Heart attack symptoms for women

The most common warning sign of possible heart attack in women is some type of pain, pressure or discomfort in the chest. But women are more likely than men to have heart attack symptoms unrelated to chest pain, such as:

  • Arm, back or jaw pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Unusual fatigue
  • Sudden nervousness, anxiety or a sense of unease

Because women tend to have blockages not only in their main arteries, but also in the smaller arteries that supply blood to the heart, these symptoms can seem mild. And even though they’re more common in women, both genders can experience discreet signs. In fact, about one-third of all heart attacks do not cause chest pain, and may consist of one or more of these warning signs.2 “Such symptoms are significant particularly if one has risk factors for heart disease, like hypertension, diabetes, hypercholesterolemia, tobacco abuse and family history, and should not be ignored,” said Dr. Howell.

Recognizing these subtler signs can be the difference between life and death. The earlier you listen to your heart, and identify potential problems, the greater your chances of avoiding long-term consequences.

Be aware of key risk factors for heart disease

High blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol and smoking are key risk factors for heart disease. Several other medical conditions and lifestyle choices can also put people at a higher risk for heart disease:

  • Diabetes
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Poor diet
  • Physical inactivity
  • Excessive alcohol use

To avoid potential heart problems, always follow your doctor’s instructions and stay on your medications. Eat a healthy diet that’s low in salt and low in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol, and rich in fresh fruits and vegetables. Take a brisk 10-minute walk three times a day, five days a week. Don’t smoke, and if you do, quit as soon as possible.

1. National vital statistics reports, 2011
2. American Heart Association, 2012