Heart Health

06 May 2008

Young women and heart attacks

Many younger women ignore or simply don't recognise the warning signs of a heart attack, often because it doesn't resemble the typical "Hollywood heart attack".

Many younger women ignore or simply don't recognise the warning signs of a heart attack, often because it doesn't resemble the typical "Hollywood heart attack" say the authors of a new study.

"So many women said, 'We wish we had a better stereotype, you never see anything in the media'," said study author Judith Lichtman, an associate professor of epidemiology and public health at Yale School of Medicine. "I personally would love to see some cutting-edge TV series of, for example, a young person having a heart attack with atypical symptoms.

"The classic image of someone having a heart attack is someone like John Belushi. It's a heavy man clutching his chest. We never think of young women as having heart disease, so the image is not part of their consciousness," added Dr Suzanne Steinbaum, director of Women & Heart Disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "It's so important that we not only tell women that heart disease doesn't necessary have to look like [a Hollywood script], but they have to understand what makes them at risk."

Worldwide, heart disease causes 8.6 million deaths among women annually. It is the largest single cause of mortality among women, accounting for a third of all deaths in women worldwide.

South Africa, though it has slightly better than the world statistics, still shows quite a grim picture: one in four women will have some form of heart condition before the age of 60. This is likely to worsen: women show the biggest increase in obesity, which is linked to heart disease.

Don't recognise symptoms in time
Last year, a study from the same group of researchers found that women under the age of 55 often fail to recognise the symptoms of a heart attack until it's too late.

Of the trial subjects, 88 percent reported traditional symptoms of severe chest pain. Yet only 42 percent suspected something was wrong with their heart.

Only half of the women experiencing heart attack symptoms sought care within the first hour, apparently because they thought their symptoms weren't real or weren't serious.

For the latest study, researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 30 women aged 55 and older a week after they had been discharged from the hospital following a heart attack.

Many didn't realise the symptoms were due to a heart attack. For example, one woman said she was told she was experiencing symptoms of acid reflux. Others attributed symptoms to fatigue, overexertion or stress.

Media creates wrong perception
Often, the symptoms just didn't line up with how heart attacks are presented in the popular media.

"I [had] probably seen a show or something with somebody having a heart attack," said one woman. "And they fall. They grab their chest. And then they grab their arm... I mean, you don't see anybody saying I have pain in my jaw or especially a heart attack, you don't see them vomiting . . . I did not know that and it's probably because of television, I would say is why I thought it would just be in the chest."

Similarly, another woman told investigators, "It's like... I didn't have any of the typical heart attack symptoms that you always hear about on TV and the ER hospital shows."

"A little bit of empowerment goes a long way," Steinbaum said. "Knowing your risk and knowing the potential for heart disease, seeking early care for symptoms that are really unclear and then saying, 'I am at risk for heart disease, please help me,' becomes important in the paradigm of how this needs to develop." (Amanda Gardner/HealthDay News, with Health24)

Read more:
Heart disease: shock facts
Heart disease hurting economy

May 2008


Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.