Women and heart attacks fact sheet

Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States. Annually more than 260,000 women in the U.S. die from cardiovascular disease, about twice the number who die of all forms of cancer combined and six times the number who die of breast cancer. It’s also higher than the number of men who die of heart attacks.

Yet, despite a gradual increase in awareness over the last few years, cardiovascular disease and heart attack are still often considered a problem only for men.


Many women lose their lives because when they have a heart attack (also called an acute myocardial infarction or AMI), they do not recognize the symptoms and do not seek immediate treatment.

The most commonly known symptom of a heart attack is chest pain. But many women never have chest pain at all. Symptoms more common in women include:

  • Discomfort that radiates to the neck, back or arm.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Numbness, tingling or weakness in arms or legs.
  • Sudden changes in vision or speech.
  • Unusually severe headache.

One of the problems is that these symptoms are less likely to suggest a heart attack either to a layman or health care professional.

What can women do?  

There are three things can do to lower their chances of dying of a heart attack:

  • Know their risk factors.
  • Work to decrease those risk factors.
  • Know the signs of heart attack, and take immediate action if they arise.

Risk factors

Some risk factors cannot be changed. They include:

  • Increasing age
  • Family history
  • Race – Women of African heritage are more likely to have a heart attack than women of European heritage and are more likely to die when they do.
  • Previous heart attack or stroke or TIA (transient ischemic attack or “mini-stroke”)

Risk factors that can be modified through lifestyle choices and medication include:

  • Smoking or daily exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Birth control pills (among women who also smoke)
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Physical inactivity
  • Obesity and overweight
  • Diabetes
  • High triglyceride levels
  • Excessive alcohol intake
  • Individual response to stress

If you know or suspect that you have one or more of these risk factors, talk to your doctor about how you can make healthy changes to prevent a heart attack before it happens.

When to take action  

If you do experience any symptoms associated with a heart attack, fast response is key. For the best chance of survival, care needs to begin within an hour of the beginning of symptoms. Many women who suffer heart attacks, as many as 25 percent to 50 percent, wait four hours or more. With faster treatment the chance of dying decreases by nearly half.

Three phases of delay have been identified. The time required for the patient or bystander to recognize heart attack symptoms, the time between recognition and arrival at an emergency department (the action phase), and the time between arrival and the initiation of advanced care. The recognition and action phase account for the majority of the delay.


Percutaneous coronary intervention is the insertion of a small tube with a balloon tip at the groin. The tube is threaded through lower arteries until it reaches the coronary arteries of the heart. The balloon is then inflated to open the arteries. Once the coronary arteries are open and blood flow is restored, a wire mesh tube (stent) is placed in the arteries to keep them open.

Thrombolytic agents are drugs used to break down a blood clot (thrombus) and restore blood flow. Thrombolytic agents are also effective for stroke victims if initiated quickly.

Research has shown that education and awareness among women of heart attack symptoms and need for action is just as important as the availability and types of health care provided.

About the Gill Heart & Vascular Institute 

The UK Gill Heart & Vascular Institute takes a comprehensive approach to heart health. It begins with promoting cardiovascular wellness and extends to treating complex, life-threatening complications.

Our dedicated specialists use the most advanced technology to diagnose and treat patients with leading-edge tools available only at premier medical centers across the country. Gill physicians use the most up-to-date therapies and devices, including Total Artificial Hearts and heart transplants.

Should you require surgery, our heart specialists operate in UK HealthCare’s recently opened robotic hybrid operating room – one of the country’s largest and the first of its kind in the region – or in one of our new, state-of-the-art, multipurpose operating rooms and catheterization labs.

In addition to providing the most comprehensive heart care available in the region, Gill Heart Institute experts also train the next generation of Kentucky’s cardiologists.

At the Gill Heart Institute, our team of doctors and staff provide compassionate care using the most modern treatments and facilities available.


UK Gill Heart & Vascular Institute 

257-1000 or 800-333-8874 (toll free)

American Heart Association  

Women’s Heart Foundation 

Page last updated: 4/4/2017 1:29:48 PM