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Embargoed for Release: December 10, 2007, 4:00 PM EST

NHLBI Communications Office
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Embargoed for Release: December 10, 2007, 4:00 PM EST

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Heart Attack Symptoms in Women – Are they Different?

Chest pain is still the most common sign of a heart attack for most women, although studies have shown that women are more likely than men to have symptoms other than chest pain or discomfort when experiencing a heart attack or other form of acute coronary syndrome (ACS), according to an article "Symptom Presentation of Women With Acute Coronary Syndromes – Myth vs. Reality" published online Dec. 10 in the Archives of Internal Medicine. The study was funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) of the National Institutes of Health.

Researchers examined 35 years of research that yielded 69 studies 69 studies and found that, depending on the size of the study (which ranged from large trials to single centers and interviews), between 30 percent and 37 percent of women did not have chest discomfort during a heart attack. In contrast, 17 percent to 27 percent of men did not experience chest discomfort. Overall, the majority of women – and men -- in the reviewed studies had chest discomfort with heart attack (two-thirds to three-quarters, depending on study size). 

Study authors also found that older people are more likely to have heart attack without chest discomfort.  However, because women are on average nearly a decade older than men at the time of their initial heart attack, the researchers call for more studies to determine the degree to which gender independently influences heart attack symptoms. 

They conclude that current research does not indicate a need to differentiate heart attack symptoms in women from those in men, and public health messages should continue to emphasize chest pain or discomfort, shortness of breath, and other common signs of heart attack.  Coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death among U.S. women, and affects one in 10 women over the age of 18.

The authors also report that women are more likely than men to experience otherforms of cardiac chest pain syndromes, such as unstable angina, and they appear to report a wider range of symptoms associated with ACS. For example, women are more likely to report pain in the middle or upper back, neck, or jaw; shortness of breath; nausea or vomiting; indigestion; loss of appetite; weakness or fatigue; cough; dizziness; and palpitations.

Absence of chest discomfort is a strong predictor for missed diagnosis and treatment delays. Noting that many studies exclude patients who do not report chest pain, the researchers call for additional research from well-designed studies to further investigate gender differences in heart attack symptoms. This includes expanding symptom definitions and greater standardization in data collection and reporting of women's symptoms.  

Study co-author George Sopko, M.D., Medical Officer with NHLBI's Division of Cardiovascular Diseases, is available for comment. To schedule interviews, contact the NHLBI Communications Office at 301-496-4236 or at nhlbi_news@nhlbi.nih.gov.

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NHLBI is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Federal Government's primary agency for biomedical and behavioral research. NHLBI press releases and fact sheets, including information on the Women's Health Initiative and on overweight and obesity can be found online at www.nhlbi.nih.gov.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) — The Nation's Medical Research Agency — includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is the primary Federal agency for conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and it investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit http://www.nih.gov.

For the Media

NHLBI Communications Office
nhlbi_news@nhlbi.nih.gov
301-496-4236
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Related Health Topics

Heart Attack

Heart Disease in Women

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