Why do women wait longer to get help during a heart attack?

Heart Health

by Fahmi Farah, MD

Feb 18, 2019

Toward the end of my internal medicine training at Baylor Scott & White and just two months before starting my cardiology fellowship training at the University of Oklahoma, my 29-year-old cousin died of cardiomyopathy a week after giving birth. This was not only devastating, but it also made a huge impression on me. It was at that moment that I decided to emphasize training in women’s heart disease and dedicate research to peripartum cardiomyopathy during my cardiology fellowship.

I made it my life’s mission to increase awareness of heart disease among women.

Study reveals alarming difference between men and women

Within the past few years, literature has been filled with articles describing the way heart disease manifests itself differently in women versus men. A hospital in Switzerland recently published a study that examined 4,360 adults who had a heart attack between the years 2000 and 2016. One of the metrics they looked at was how long men and women waited to get help for heart attack symptoms.

Related: Women and heart disease: It’s not just a man’s problem

The results were disturbing. They found that women wait approximately 37 minutes longer than men before contacting medical services for help.

A lot can happen in those 37 minutes.

Women wait approximately 37 minutes longer than men before contacting medical services for help.

The study’s authors also found that women seemed less likely than men to attribute their symptoms to a condition that required urgent treatment. Finally, they noted that women experienced different heart attack symptoms than men. Rather than pain in the chest and left arm experienced by men, women described pain in their backs, shoulders or stomachs. The unfortunate bottom line consequence of this delay in seeking treatment was higher in-hospital mortality rates for women.

Every day, I emphasize with my patients, both men and women, the importance of seeking emergency medical assistance — immediately — if they are experiencing signs of a heart attack.

Cheryl thought it was indigestion. Turns out, she was having a heart attack.

Unusual heart attack symptoms in women

Most people know the most common signs are chest discomfort and jaw or arm pain. But it’s what people don’t know that concerns me. Most people don’t know the more unusual symptoms commonly experienced by women, or that it is possible to have a heart attack without chest pain or discomfort.

Other symptoms can include:

  • Back pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Upper back pressure
  • Extreme fatigue

I especially talk to my female patients about these specific symptoms exhibited by women having a heart attack, and I’ll tell you the same thing I tell them: the signs may be different, but the urgency is the same.

Related: Are you at risk for heart disease?

If you suspect that you or a loved one is having a heart attack, don’t wait 37 minutes. Don’t even wait 37 seconds. Seek help immediately.

Get care for your heart today.

About the Author

Dr. Farah is a cardiologist on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White All Saints Medical Center – Fort Worth.

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