Heart attack: The warning sign experienced by 71% of women in the month before an attack

What's the difference between a heart attack and cardiac arrest?

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Heart attacks are notorious for striking unexpectedly, which is part of what makes them one of the world’s deadliest conditions. An attack occurs when blood flow to the heart comes to a sudden halt. This triggers a tsunami of symptoms, but there is evidence that warning signs may appear in the months leading up to the event. According to one body of research, women may experience unusual fatigue, sleep disturbances and shortness of breath in the month before they suffer a heart attack.

Symptoms of heart attack reflect the heart’s deprivation of nutrient-rich blood and oxygen.

The first symptom to signal this is chest pain, which is similar to the pain caused by leg muscle cramps during exercise.

Because the heart is in charge of pumping vital blood to the rest of the body, its malfunction immediately causes the entire body to become oxygen deprived.

This prompts a cascade of symptoms, but the warning signs may differ for men and women.

A survey published in the journal Circulation gathered information from more than 500 women who had survived a heart attack to compare their symptoms.

Approximately 95 percent of the sample said they have noticed unusual bodily changes in the months before the event.

The most common complaints in the weeks leading up to the heart attack were tiredness and disturbed sleep.

Interestingly, the survey revealed that chest pain was experienced by fewer women during a heart attack compared to men.

In fact, while the majority of men were likely to suffer chest pain during an event, women were more likely to experience shortness of breath.

In 2019, Harvard Health summarised the findings with a list of the top 12 symptoms reported by women the month before a heart attack:

  • Unusual fatigue (71 percent)
  • Sleep disturbance (48 percent)
  • Shortness of breath (42 percent)
  • Indigestion (39 percent)
  • Anxiety (36 percent)
  • Heart racing (27 percent)
  • Arms weak / heavy (25 percent)
  • Changes in thinking or memory (24 percent)
  • Vision change (23 percent)
  • Loss of appetite (22 percent)
  • Hands/arms tingling (22 percent)
  • Difficulty breathing at night (19 percent)

One of the reasons men and women may experience different heart attack symptoms is that men are more likely to suffer a build-up of plaque in their large arteries that supply the heart with blood.

Women on the other hand, tend to be more vulnerable to a buildup in the heart’s smaller arteries, known as microvasculature.

Experts hope that raising awareness of the warning signs will prevent them from being written off as other minor niggles, and potentially save lives.

How to prevent heart attack

It is widely understood that heart attacks result from lifelong habits that progressively hamper vascular health.

In fact, research has consistently pointed to four major risk factors for the disease that are easily modifiable with the correct lifestyle changes.

The Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health (HSPH) explains: “Risk factors that can be modified include habits and choices such as tobacco use, physical activity, and what you eat and drink.

It continues: “Other potentially modifiable risk factors include air pollution, noise, stress, and infection, though these are not as easy for an individual to control directly.”

All of these factors directly impact several physiological aspects of health like blood pressure, cholesterol levels and blood sugar.

Although having one or two of these risk factors may not necessarily result in a heart attack, the more risk factors you have, the greater the risk, warns HSPH.

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