Women and Heart Disease: Sometimes a Difficult Diagnosis
Heart disease trumps all other diseases, including cancer, as the number one cause of death for American women. Partly, that's because women may suffer from less recognized heart attack symptoms. The condition may also affect a woman's body differently, making it harder to diagnose. Read on to learn more about the dangers of heart disease.
Women - more than men - tend to experience uncommon symptoms of a heart attack. In fact, women don't always have the telltale symptom of severe chest pain or pressure. Rather, they are more likely to feel jaw or neck pain. They are also more apt to experience the following:
- Shortness of breath
- Lightheadedness or fainting
- Upper back pressure
- Extreme fatigue
These subtler symptoms may lead some women to dismiss the thought of a heart attack. Doctors may also mistake these signs for another condition.
Along with uncommon heart attack symptoms, the type of heart disease affecting a woman can make for a more difficult diagnosis. Doctors use the term "heart disease" as a catch-all for many types of conditions affecting the heart. The most common is coronary heart disease (CHD). It affects both men and women. In CHD, plaque builds up in the large arteries, which may lead to a heart attack.
More women, though, tend to have a less commonly known condition called coronary microvascular disease (CMD). Researchers think women are more prone to CMD because of a drop in estrogen during menopause. Unlike CHD, CMD affects the tiny arteries of the heart where plaque doesn't collect. Typical tests used to diagnose CHD, such as the stress test or angiogram, aren't effective in discovering CMD. They aren't sensitive enough yet to detect damage in the tiny arteries, possibly leading to a misdiagnosis.
Doctors are working hard to find the best way to diagnose all types of heart disease, including CMD, in women. You can do your part, too. Live heart healthy. And know all the potential signs of a heart attack. Seek help immediately if you think you may be having a heart attack. Even a slight delay in diagnosis and treatment may mean the difference between life and death.
Always consult your physician for more information.