A sudden pain, starting in your chest and radiating down your left arm. Pressure, as if an elephant suddenly sat upon your upper torso. Shortness of breath. Cold sweats. These are the classic signs of a heart attack … for men. But what about women? Are the symptoms the same? Join us as we talk to a heart health expert at Norton Heart & Vascular Institute, to find out common heart attack signs and how men and women differ. We’ll also hear the stories of two women who survived unexpected heart problems and lead healthier, more active lives today.

First, a little background information: The term “heart disease” refers to several different heart conditions. In the United States, it usually means coronary artery disease, which affects the flow of blood to the heart. A heart attack happens when a part of the heart muscle doesn’t get enough blood. Heart disease, left untreated, can cause a heart attack.

One in every five deaths in women is caused by a heart attack.

Current statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Heart Association show:

  • Only 56% of women are aware of the fact that heart disease is their number one cause of death
  • Over 600,000 people die of heart disease in the U.S. every year – one in every four deaths overall, and one in every five deaths for women
  • Every year approximately 790,000 Americans have a heart attack – 580,000 are a first heart attack, and 210,000 occur in people who’ve already experienced a heart attack
  • About 15% of people who experience a heart attack will die from it
  • Almost half of all sudden cardiac deaths occur outside of a hospital, suggesting that many people with heart disease do not act on early warning signs
  • Chances of survival increase if emergency treatment is given as quickly as possible

Although heart disease is the leading cause of death for women, heart attacks and heart disease have traditionally been perceived as a men’s health issue. In fact, says cardiologist Dr. Janet Smith, that is why the so-called classic symptoms are typically symptoms men experience. “For years, all the studies focused on men, so the symptoms they listed were what everyone came to recognize as symptoms of all heart attacks,” explains Dr. Smith, who specializes in internal medicine and cardiovascular disease at Norton Healthcare.

“Women can present the ‘classic’ signs of a heart attack,” she continues. “Chest pressure or pain is the most common symptom for both men and women. But women are more likely than men to feel some of the other symptoms like shortness of breath, nausea, and fatigue. Many describe to me a feeling that something is very wrong, almost a feeling of impending doom.”

Dr. Janet Smith is a cardiologist with Norton Healthcare.

Women should seek medical attention immediately if they notice*:

  • Sudden fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Stomach or abdominal pain
  • Dull ache, pain, tightness or pressure in the chest, back, arm, or jaw
  • Back pain
  • Neck, arm, and/or shoulder pain
  • Nausea or indigestion
  • Heart palpitations, cold sweats, and/or paleness
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Unexplained anxiety

Some women may have no symptoms, or may not recognize them until too late. Brenda Burney was 63, healthy, active, and working when a stress test sent her reeling. Formerly in the military, Brenda has always known the importance of exercise, though she switched from running her miles to walking. A single mother of two grown sons, she relishes her role as “Grammy” to four granddaughters. And as a hospital chaplain, she is always busy. The job was (and is) stressful, however, and her doctor had become concerned about her blood pressure. “I took a routine stress test on August 19, 2018,” says Brenda. “The doctors realized that something was wrong and sent me immediately to Norton Audubon Hospital where I was diagnosed with heart disease. Three days later, I had triple bypass surgery.”

Looking back, Brenda says the warning signs were there. She has a family history of heart disease; her father had triple bypass surgery, her mother underwent a quadruple bypass. High blood pressure is another indicator. Brenda recalls experiencing a burning feeling in her chest when she exercised, a strange “grabbing” pain across her back, and fatigue. What does she want women to know? “You are in control of your bodies. Listen to your body and allow it to tell the story of how you are.”

Brenda was not aware she had heart disease until she took a stress test. She later underwent triple bypass surgery to improve her heart health.

Brenda attributes her survival to the quick intervention of her health providers and the support of her family. “They were just as shocked as I was, but my extended family became my primary caregivers. They met to figure out a schedule and took off work to be with me.”

Today Brenda is back at work as a palliative care chaplain. She eats well and continues to exercise, even introducing a “Let’s Move” line dance group for seniors at her church. Most importantly to her, she’s become a champion of women’s heart health, sharing her story with others, promoting healthy diet and exercise, and actively participating in a support group at Norton.

After an event, “it’s all about lifestyle,” Dr. Smith explains. Making necessary changes is critical. Eating a heart-healthy diet, getting regular exercise, maintaining an optimal weight, not smoking, and taking prescribed medication are all important factors to recovery – a lesson it took Chloe McClure two heart attacks to learn.

One of five daughters, Chloe has lost two sisters to colon cancer. One sibling had to have a colon resection, one sister is a breast cancer survivor, and her father died of a stroke in 1956. Her only brother died of a heart attack, but with so much cancer in her family’s health history, Chloe says heart health was not really on her radar.

Single with two grown daughters, Chloe was a year from retirement as an administrative assistant when she had her first heart attack in January 2011. Like Brenda, Chloe also experienced intense fatigue, sometimes falling asleep in her work clothes right when she got home and sleeping until morning, but she chalked it up to her job. When her heart attack happened, it was sudden and surprising.

“I leaned over to put paper in the copier and felt a huge, heavy weight in my chest,” she says. “It passed long enough for me to get help. I had an angioplasty with a stent at Norton and then I went right back to my same lifestyle. I didn’t pay attention to diet or start exercising. My attitude was, I’m fixed, so I’ll just get on with my job.”

Chloe has survived two heart attacks, and now appreciates the importance of leading a healthy, active life.

Two weeks after her April 2012 retirement, Chloe had her second heart attack.

“I was having my morning coffee and noticed my shoulder bothering me. At first, I thought I’d slept on it wrong, but then my jaw began hurting, almost like I had a toothache. I began to feel faint, then had chills and nausea. I realized what was happening so I called my daughter and she got me to the hospital quickly. The EKG showed I was having another heart attack. I had a second angioplasty with a stent.”

She paid more attention to what her cardiologist told her this time. “I started walking,” she says. “I participated in a mini-marathon this spring, I do Pilates, yoga, and water aerobics.”

An ovarian cancer survivor, Chloe knows the importance of support groups. She also participates in the monthly group offered by Norton Healthcare and is on the Norton Patient and Family Advisory Council. She is an active volunteer in her community and with cancer support groups. Her best advice? “Do not ignore what the doctor tells you!”

Both Brenda and Chloe found help within Norton Healthcare, which provides some amazing preventative and after-care programs to help women get healthy and stay that way:

  • Their Women’s Heart Program was established in 1995 to focus on the latest and greatest in heart care treatment for women, and provides the education and encouragement that empowers women to take control of their own heart health
  • Heart health screenings include a heart-healthy lifestyle consultation with a cardiovascular nurse educator to create a plan for a long-term, healthy lifestyle
  • Cardiac rehab goes beyond initial treatments. It’s a comprehensive rehabilitation program that provides one-on-one attention, practical and emotional support, and education for an active, healthy life after surgery
  • Connecting Hearts Support Group meets monthly to provide support, encouragement, and education to survivors
  • Classes and events include Tai Chi for Heart Health and Heart-Healthy Cooking

And lastly, what do cardiologists want women to know? Dr. Smith’s parting advice echoes both Brenda’s and Chloe’s:

  • Pay attention to your body. If you feel something, seek attention. It is far better to ‘cry wolf’ than to miss something in regards to your health.
  • It’s important to follow through with your doctor’s orders regarding exercise, diet, and medicines.
  • Create lifestyle changes that are sustainable so you can reap the benefits over the long-term – no “going on a diet” to achieve a short-term goal! Create a plan you can live with.

*Source: Norton Healthcare

To learn more about Norton’s heart health programs and to find a physician, visit nortonhealthcare.com.

This article is sponsored by Norton Healthcare.