5 reasons women ignore heart attacks

"Young women with multiple risk factors and a strong family history of cardiac disease should not assume they are too young to have a heart attack," says Judith Lichtman. (Credit: Charlotte Astrid/Flickr)

Younger women are more likely than men of the same age to overlook the earliest signs of a heart attack. The findings may help explain why so many die.

A new study examined the experiences of women ranging in age from 30 to 55 years old who were hospitalized with acute myocardial infarction (AMI). In-depth interviews revealed how the women responded during the crucial period when first symptoms, including pain and dizziness, appeared and when they decided to seek medical care.

5 key findings

Through in-depth interviews with the young women, the nine-member research team explored how the women responded during the crucial period when their first symptoms manifested and they decided to seek medical care. The results suggest five reasons why:

  • Women’s initial symptoms vary widely in both nature and duration.
  • Women inaccurately assess their personal risk of heart disease.
  • External factors (such as work and family) can influence the decision to seek emergency medical help.
  • Not all patients receive a prompt or complete workup for their AMI symptoms or a formal diagnosis.
  • Women don’t routinely access primary care, including preventive care for heart disease.

Don’t assume you’re too young

“Young women with multiple risk factors and a strong family history of cardiac disease should not assume they are too young to have a heart attack,” says lead researcher Judith Lichtman, associate professor and chair of the chronic disease epidemiology department at Yale University.

“Participants in our study said they were concerned about initiating a false alarm in case their symptoms were due to something other than a heart attack. Identifying strategies to empower women to recognize symptoms and seek prompt care without stigma or perceived judgment may be particularly critical for young women at increased risk for heart disease.”

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The study results suggest more needs to be done to educate women about the early symptoms of a heart attack and to change the way that both women and health care providers respond to the symptoms, says Leslie Curry, senior research scientist at the Yale Global Health Leadership Institute and senior author on the paper, that is published in the journal Circulation.

Each year, in the United States alone, more than 15,000 women under age 55 die from heart disease, ranking it as a leading cause of death for this age group.

In addition to promoting knowledge about heart disease and encouraging more prompt care-seeking behaviors, another important goal for this population of women is improving preventive heart care, Lichtman says.

The Fannie E. Rippel Foundation and grants from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute funded the study. Researchers from Northwestern University, Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute, and the University of Missouri-Kansas City contributed to the work.

Source: Yale University