Health, Wellbeing & medcine

Could you spot the signs of a heart attack?

It may seem impossible that you could have a heart attack and not know it. Yet a disturbing study recently found that early warning signs had been missed in one in six people who later died in English hospitals.

This blog is adapted from an article I wrote for Yours magazine, and the shocking news is that just being a woman means you’re less likely to notice the tell tale signs.

‘That’s because we still think of the classic heart attack type as a stressed out businessman,’ I was told by Dr Mike Knapton, Associate Medical Director of the British Heart Foundation. ‘But in fact your risk is just as great, especially after your menopause.

‘Before the menopause the hormone oestrogen offers some protection, but whatever your age it’s important to be aware of the symptoms – especially the more unusual ones, which tend to affect women more than men.

‘Be extra vigilant if you’re a smoker or have risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity and diabetes.’

  • Heart disease is the number one killer of women, with over two million premature deaths each year worldwide.
  • ‘About 50% of women will die from a heart problem – that’s more than twice the number (20%) of deaths due to breast cancer,’ says Professor Karen Sliwa, President-Elect of the World Heart Federation.  
  •  ‘The classic sign of a heart attack is a pain in the centre of your chest, between your breasts or behind your breastbone – but 37% of women have no chest pain with their heart attacks, ‘ says Professor Sliwa.
  • Spreading pain or discomfort in other areas of your upper body – such as your arms, back, jaw, neck or stomach – are also warning signs, and one in four women whose heart attacks have gone unrecognised have had these kind of less obvious symptoms.
  • The pain of a heart attack is not always severe – it can just be uncomfortable.
  • Shortness of breath, unexplained weakness or fatigue, anxiety or unusual nervousness can also be surprising signs.
  • ‘Indigestion, gas-like pain, cold sweats, nausea, light-headedness and collapse are also signs that are often mistaken for being something less serious,’ says Professor Sliwa.
  • 3 women an hour die from heart attacks in the UK.
  • Take note if you are feeling sick, sweaty, breathless or light­headed, with associated chest pain or discomfort. A general feeling of being unwell or lethargic can also be an indicator of a heart attack when you also have chest pain or discomfort.
  • Check your weight. Even if you take lots of exercise, you’ve more than double the usual risk of a suffering a heart attack if you’re also obese (which means you have a BMI of 30 or more).
  • If you’re obese and you also smoke, you can expect to live 14 fewer years than a non smoker of normal weight.
  • If you do less than one hour’s exercise a week you have nearly 50% more risk of developing coronary heart disease than a woman who does three hours a week.
  • Know your numbers… Past the age of 40 you’re entitled to a five yearly NHS Health Check at which your blood pressure and cholesterol will be tested.

Women’s hearts are different…

‘You have different risk factors to men,’ says Professor Sliwa. ‘You’re more at risk of high blood pressure before the age of 45, and you’re more likely to become obese. Women are also more likely to take up smoking than men. All these things are major risk factors for heart disease.’

If in doubt, check it out…

If you’re getting unusual grumbling indigestion-like symptoms and are concerned they could be to do with your heart, your GP can refer you to a chest clinic within two weeks to explore the underlying reason.

If you have sudden and acute pain that you suspect is a heart attack, call 999. ‘Taking an aspirin can help to reduce a clot, but don’t go on a frantic search for aspirin. It’s more important to make that emergency call and then rest quietly until help arrives,’ says Dr Knapton.

Reduce your risk…

If you do one thing, give up smoking. As a woman, even two or three cigarettes a day double your risk of a heart attack (a man’s risk is doubled with five or six cigarettes a day).

‘You should also try to lose weight and take more exercise. Try not to be put off by guidelines that seem unachievable. If the recommended 150 minutes of exercise per week is too daunting, do whatever small amount you can manage – it will probably spur you on to do more.  Don’t buy into the “it’s too late for me” myth – though the earlier you start improving your lifestyle the more you will gain.’