The British Heart Foundation are campaigning for more people to recognise the signs and symptoms of heart attacks in women. Many people have the misconception that heart attacks only happen to men and this has led to thousands of women failing to realise that they are experiencing a heart attack and consequently not seeking the necessary medical help.
The BHF state that coronary heart disease kills more than twice as many women as breast cancer in the UK every year and is the single biggest killer of women worldwide – yet despite this it’s often perceived to be a ‘man’s disease’.
There are more than 800,000 women in the UK living with coronary heart disease, which is the main cause of heart attacks. 35,000 women are admitted to hospital following a heart attack each year in the UK – an average of 98 women per day, or 4 per hour.
The British Heart Foundation want to remind people of the following:
The symptoms of a heart attack vary from person to person.
Not everyone gets ‘classic’, crushing chest pain.
Often women are slow to seek medical attention and treatment quickly, despite possible warning signs. Because there is a general perception that heart attacks only happen to men. Women often dismiss symptoms as anything other than a heart attack, as they simply don’t believe they are at risk.
Defibrillators are far more accessible and widely used – do you know what they are? Have a look at this article for what AEDs are and how to use them.
Call an ambulance quickly | heart attacks in women
The advice from the British Heart Foundation is to think carefully, women do have heart attacks and if you think you, or someone you know, is having one, don’t delay; call 999 for an ambulance immediately.
The quicker you receive treatment the better the outcome. A heart attack is caused by a disruption to the blood flow to the heart. It is essential to receive medical treatment as quickly as possible, so they can restore blood supply to the affected heart muscle and reduce the long-term damage to the heart.
In the 1960s, seven out of 10 heart attacks in the UK proved fatal. Today, seven out of 10 people who have a heart attack will survive. There are incredible advances in the treatment available. Often paramedics will bypass A&E and go straight to cardiac angiography suites, where they can instantly insert a catheter and restore the blood supply to the heart.
Spotting the signs of heart attacks in women
Heart attack signs and symptoms can vary hugely, but the most common signs of a heart attack are:
- chest pain or discomfort in the chest that occurs suddenly but doesn’t go away. It may feel like pressure, tightness or squeezing – some people have severe pain, some hardly notice it.
- the pain or discomfort may spread to your left or right arm or may spread to the neck, jaw, back or stomach. Some people mistake it for a sprain or strain.
- people often feel sick, sweaty, light-headed or short of breath.
Other less common symptoms include:
- a sudden feeling of anxiety, or fluttering in the chest, similar to a panic attack
- excessive coughing or wheezing
- a feeling of feeling incredibly unwell – some people refer to is as a feeling of impending doom
Chest pain should never be ignored. If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms dial 999 immediately.
Here’s a guide to how to survive heart attacks and cardiac arrests.
Reducing the risk of heart attacks in women?
Pre-menopausal women are protected from heart conditions by their hormones. However post-menopausal increase in risk and this risk rises further as women age.
The British Heart Foundation recommend that all women over the age of 40 visit their local GP or nurse for an NHS health check to check their blood pressure and cholesterol and review their cardiovascular risk.
As people get older they develop more risk factors that increase the risk of developing coronary heart disease. Obviously, the more risk factors, the higher the risk:
- high blood pressure
- high cholesterol
- being overweight
- family history of heart problems
- not doing enough physical activity
A particular problem for women:
The prognosis for women experiencing heart attacks is nowhere near as encouraging as for men. Women are 50% more likely to be wrongly diagnosed following a heart attack. Currently, it is thought that this is due to health professionals also having a gender bias and missing some of the signs and symptoms of heart attacks in women.
Health professionals may not diagnose quickly enough
This is because many women experience slightly different signs and symptoms of heart attacks to men. Moreover, women often do not complain of the same degree of chest pain as men.
In addition, there is a hormone – troponin, that is routinely tested to establish whether someone is undergoing a heart attack. In women, troponin levels don’t rise to the same levels as men and so are not detected as abnormal. This is currently being reviewed and lower levels of abnormality being introduced to help detect more heart attacks in women.
Delays have consequences:
Someone experiencing a heart attack who suffers a delay in diagnosis and treatment, has been shown to have a 70% higher risk of death after 30 days than someone who gets the right diagnosis straight away. In addition, they may experience long term complications and reduced heart function.
Frighteningly it is thought that as well as women being less likely to get the right treatment in a timely manner, they are also less likely to receive proper aftercare, including medication to prevent a second heart attack.
Unfortunately, women are also less motivated to change their lifestyles; stop smoking and improving their diet and increasing physical activity.
It is hoped that increasing awareness of the incidence of heart attacks in women, will save lives and improve the long-term prognosis for women experiencing heart attacks.
Please help us and the British Heart Foundation to share this vital information.
It is also the case that young people can experience heart attacks – find out about heart attacks in the young and the simple screening to prevent them.
Written by Emma Hammett for First Aid for Life
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We cover first aid heart attacks on all our first aid training. To enable you to stay calm and give someone the best chance of recovery.
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