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Heart Attacks and
The Misunderstood Gender Gap

When it comes to heart attacks, knowing the difference between symptoms that affect men and symptoms that affect women holds a lot of importance.

Heart Attacks and
The Misunderstood
Gender Gap

When it comes to heart attacks, knowing the difference between symptoms that affect men and symptoms that affect women holds a lot of importance.

When asked to describe what a heart attack looks like, the common visual that comes to mind is a dramatic scene from a movie or TV show where a middle-aged man suddenly clutches his chest, gasps in shock, and falls to the ground, probably after receiving horrible news. Such moments of melodrama would include a feeling of ‘stabbing’ in his left arm, shortness of breath, and a pained expression on the man’s face as he is slowly lowered into a chair, followed by a dramatic ambulance scene showing his admission into the hospital.

According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 17.7 million people died from cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) in 2015, representing 31% of all global deaths. 80% of these deaths were due to heart attacks or strokes. However, they rarely look like the typical heart attack that television depicts. As old medical literature taught scriptwriters, classic heart attack symptoms include pressure and aching in the chest area; discomfort that radiates to the upper part of the body like the shoulders, neck, and arms; and excessive sweating. Despite the overwhelming statistics, many heart attacks occur without any of these conventional symptoms. In fact, we now see occurrences of ‘neoclassical’ symptoms like shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, back pain, and unexplained fatigue.

Here are four surprising facts that you didn’t know about heart attacks and the difference between the symptoms experienced by males and females:

  • Age

    On average, men tend to suffer more heart attacks at a younger age compared to women (age 65 for men, age 72 for women). However, more women die of heart attacks than men do. Among all the reasons for the high mortality rate (women have a higher life expectancy than men do), one can’t help but include the fact that women tend to report fewer heart attacks. This is because they are often unaware that they are even experiencing one. Due to limited awareness, they are unable to seek appropriate treatment, significantly reducing the survival rate. 

  • Appearance of ‘neoclassical’ symptoms

    Women suffering a heart attack are more prone to developing ‘neoclassical’ symptoms than men. Women experiencing heart attacks tend to have more ‘neoclassical’ symptoms than men. Women report distinct symptoms, rarely relating them to heart attacks in real-time and often mistaking them for ‘the flu’ or a ‘stomach bug’.

  • Occurrence of additional symptoms

    Women have a 12X higher probability of feeling throat discomfort, a 3.7X higher probability of developing indigestion and a 3.9X higher probability of vomiting during heart attacks. Women are also more likely to experience shortness of breath without chest discomfort, making them feel like they have run a marathon, but, in reality, they haven’t exerted excessive energy. This is accompanied by pain or discomfort in the arms, back, and even the jaw. Men are 4.7X more likely to experience right-sided chest discomfort and 3.9X more likely to report a general dull ache.

  • Medical assistance

    On average, it takes men 3 hours to call for medical assistance when having a heart attack and women 4 hours.  When experiencing a heart attack, survival depends on early detection and treatment. Seek immediate medical attention or speak to your healthcare professional if you are suffering from any of the above symptoms. Getting help as early as possible is key.

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