The good news is that 80% of heart attacks and strokes can be prevented by lifestyle changes, but when heart attacks do occur, fewer women than men survive the first attack. That’s largely because heart-disease symptoms in women can be different from those in men—and even some physicians misread the subtleties.
Several large heart-disease studies excluded women, and it wasn’t until the Women’s Health Initiative began in 1991 that it started to become clear that the body of knowledge that did exist was applicable mostly to men. Sometimes that knowledge worked when applied to women, and sometimes it didn’t.
Women can even have different symptoms of heart attacks and heart disease than men. They tend to experience slightly more nausea, vomiting and shortness of breath than men do when they’re suffering from heart disease, and when they have a heart attack, women are less likely to have the classic feeling of chest pain that’s associated with the event. Often, they describe a more subtle pressure or tightness, not full-blown chest pain, according to the Mayo Clinic, because their smaller arteries are more likely to be affected. These variations may be why doctors can miss signs of heart distress in women.