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The most important thing you should know about heart attack symptoms in women over 50 is that they are often not the traditional signs of a heart attack. Both women and men can experience chest pain, usually in the center of the chest. It’s sometimes described as a “squeezing” feeling, and it’s the most familiar heart attack symptom.
But women are also more likely to feel symptoms that may not seem related to the heart. In fact, many women never feel any chest pain during a heart attack.
It’s especially important to recognize symptoms of a heart attack in women over 50, because after menopause, the risk of heart attack rises dramatically. (See our related post “Know How to Respond to Heart Attack Symptoms.”)
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7 Common Heart Attack Symptoms in Women Over 50
Some of the more common heart attack symptoms in women over 50 include the following:
- Pain in one or both arms is one widely known symptom. The left arm tends to be more associated with heart attack symptoms in women and men, but pain or discomfort in either arm could be a sign.
- Women are also more likely to feel pain in their jaw, neck, or upper back and shoulders.
- Shortness of breath is also a common heart attack symptom in women and men. It can occur with or without chest pain.
- Though chest pain may or may not be present, it’s still important to recognize when it may be a sign of a heart attack. Chest pain that lasts for more than a few minutes, or comes and goes more than once, could signal a heart attack. The pain may feel like a great deal of pressure, as though someone was sitting on your chest. And that awful feeling isn’t always felt in the center of the chest. You may feel it from “armpit to armpit.”
- Sudden nausea, and even vomiting, are also signs more common to women experiencing a heart attack.
- You may also break out in a cold sweat and may feel anxious.
- Many women also report feeling that something “just isn’t right,” though such a symptom may be hard to describe.
Aging and Risk
The symptoms of a heart attack in women over 50 are especially important to know because as women get older, their odds of dying of heart disease are much greater than dying of cancer. Too often a heart attack is thought of as a man’s health problem. But in recent years, research has continued to sound the alarm that heart disease is every bit a woman’s concern as it is a man’s.
Prior to age 40, the risk of having a heart attack is relatively small among women. And even between the ages of 40 and 59, less than two percent of women in the U.S. are likely to have a heart attack, according to the American Heart Association. But after that, the risk more than doubles up to age 79, and then doubles again after that. And what is particularly alarming is that as women get older, the risk of a heart attack being fatal jumps drastically every 10 years. Men’s risk of a fatal heart attack remains fairly even from their 50s onward.
The higher heart risks for post-menopausal women isn’t completely understood. Researchers believe declining levels of estrogen may be at least partly to blame, as the hormone may have some protective effects. But there is no conclusive evidence that hormone therapy reduces the risk of heart disease or heart attack. Also, after menopause, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and blood pressure also tend to rise.
Though the real spike in heart attacks usually starts a few years after menopause, health experts agree that menopause is a good time to take stock of your overall health. Are there risk factors, such as obesity, smoking or a sedentary lifestyle that could be corrected to lower your odds of heart disease?
While the symptoms of a heart attack in women over 50 are more pronounced than they are when they are younger, there is still a major obstacle in making sure women get prompt treatment. Women tend to wait longer than men to call for help when a heart attack strikes.
Heart attack symptoms in women may not include the tell-tale sign of chest pain, but they shouldn’t be ignored. If you experience any of the symptoms described above, and they last for several minutes—especially if you’re at increased risk for a heart attack—call 911. The sooner you get help, the less damage your heart endures.
For related reading, see these University Health News posts:
Originally published in June 2016 and updated.