Young women miss heart attack symptoms

Alexia Lewis studies hard for her nutrition classes. Less than a year ago, she left her career to go back to school.

"I was in an administrative executive-type position, very high stress. I loved what I did," said Lewis.

But the stress almost killed her.

"I had tightness kind of in the middle of my chest, just like a constriction, and my left arm was completely dead," said Lewis.

At age 38, Alexia had a heart attack.

"It was just disbelief," said Lewis.

She had such strong disbelief that she didn't seek any medical attention for three days.

"Every night, I'd go to bed, and I'd make sure my dog had enough water and food was out because I might not of made it through the night," said Lewis.

Finally, a call from a friend gave her the push she needed to go to the ER. Alexia's case is not uncommon. In a study of 24 women who had heart attacks, only about half went to the emergency room within the first hour of their symptoms.

Many didn't even know they had a heart attack even though they reported the most common symptom -- chest pain.

"When they do have chest pain, a lot of times it's not the typical classic crushing pain in the middle of the chest," said interventional cardiologist, Dr. Martin Zenni.

Women are also more likely to have atypical symptoms like neck and shoulder pain, shortness of breath, unusual fatigue, sweating and nausea. For Alexia, what could have ended her life actually may have saved it.

"It was a huge wake up call. I mean you face your mortality at 38 years old, and your priorities really line up," said Lewis.

She hopes her new lifestyle will lead to a healthier heart.

About 40,000 young women are hospitalized each year for heart disease. Young women with heart disease are also twice as likely to die in the hospital than young men.

Web Extra Information:


Heart disease is the number one killer of women in the Unites States. Nearly twice as many women in the United States die of heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases as from all forms of cancer, including breast cancer. Heart disease among women becomes more common after menopause, but young women can still find themselves at risk.

According to the National Coalition of Women with Heart Disease, about 9,000 women under age 45 have heart attacks each year. Because young women are part of a demographic not usually associated with heart attacks, they face certain obstacles in recognizing their symptoms and receiving proper treatment. In many cases, women who experience a heart attack who are younger than age 55 report confusion in diagnosis because they think they are too young to experience a heart attack, and their symptoms are atypical, lasting longer than a day.

This combination of confusion and denial can lead young women to chalk their symptoms up to other conditions and subsequently delay seeking treatment. This creates a dangerous situation for a woman who actually is experiencing a heart attack.


Research by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) indicated that women often experience different physical symptoms of heart attack than men. These symptoms can be felt as long as a month or more before the actual cardiac event. In a study of 515 women, 95 percent said they knew something was different a month or more before experiencing a heart attack.

The most common symptoms were fatigue (70.6 percent), sleep disturbance (47.8 percent) and shortness of breath (42.1 percent). Fewer than 30 percent of women reported experiencing chest pain or discomfort prior to their heart attack, and even though 43 percent reported having no chest pain during the attack, most doctors continue to consider chest pain the most important symptom in both women and men.

Women in the study also reported experiencing indigestion and anxiety prior to having a heart attack. During the actual heart attack, the most common symptoms reported by women were shortness of breath and weakness.


Traditional uncontrollable risk factors for heart attack in both men and women include increased age, heredity and a previous heart attack or stroke. Risk factors that can be modified or treated include smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, physical inactivity, obesity and diabetes.

Other factors that contribute to the risk of heart disease, especially in women, include high triglyceride levels, excessive alcohol intake and response to stress. Gender is the greatest risk factor specific to men.



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