Heart attacks and women: there is a difference

Heart attacks and women: there is a difference

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A heart attack is a heart attack, right? Not necessarily. All heart attacks cause infarction (death of heart tissue/muscle), but in terms of severity and presentation, they vary significantly. There may be gender differences in symptoms between men and women.

Most of us are familiar with the classic sign of a heart attack. It is chest pain, or pressure in the center of your chest. However, many patients experience heart attacks without chest pain. And women tend to have atypical symptoms more frequently than men.

Anecdotally, I have always erred on the side of caution. I was summoned on a plane to help a 52-year-old diabetic female suffering from nausea, sweating, indigestion, fatigue and a weak and inconsistent (thready) pulse. We had to make an emergency landing — the patient was having a heart attack.

In general, those with atypical symptoms, such as these, tend to present later for treatment and are treated less urgently and aggressively, resulting in a twofold increase in hospital mortality versus those with chest pain (JAMA. 2000;283(24):3223–3229).

Gender differences in symptoms and severity

JAMA reports in its Feb. 22-29 issue on an observational study of over one million patients that examined heart attacks which occurred without chest pain as it related to gender, age and mortality (JAMA. 2012;307(8):813-822). Two out of five women having heart attacks did not have chest pain associated, a significantly higher proportion compared to men. This difference was greatest among those women who were younger than 55. The good news is that this difference seems to dissipate with increasing age.

Moreover, there was a 50 percent higher risk of mortality in women than men in the same age group. These atypical symptoms may delay treatment, resulting in women’s higher death rate.

In addition, women who have had a heart attack have a much greater risk of death two years after discharge from the hospital versus men. These results were significant for women less than 60 years old (Ann Intern Med. vol. 134 no. 3 173-181).

Cholesterol impact

There is some good news for women on the heart-attack front. In the Women’s Health Study, HDL (“good” cholesterol) was shown to reduce the risk of heart attacks (Ann Intern Med 2011;155:742). In fact, those patients who had an HDL of less than 40 mg/dl compared to those who had more than 62 mg/dl were at two-times higher risk of a cardiovascular event. This study followed 27,000 women over an 11-year period. Unfortunately, HDL-raising drug therapies do not seem to change the outcomes for women with low HDL.

Aerobic exercise, however, may raise HDL. According to the Mayo Clinic, HDL may rise by 5 percent within two months with 30 minutes per day of vigorous exercise five times a week (www.mayoclinic.com). This includes playing sports, swimming, running or even raking leaves.

Solution: risk reduction

How do we avoid sending patients with indigestion to the emergency room? We don’t want to flood hospitals and waste a finite amount of resources by raising the number of false alarms significantly.

The answer lies in reducing the risk factors. Approximately 90 percent of heart attacks are a result of atherosclerosis (plaques in arteries) that result in the blockage of a coronary artery (www.medscape.com). Dean Ornish, M.D., showed that, with intensive lifestyle modifications, including a plant-based diet, exercise and stress reduction, it is possible to reverse atherosclerosis.

The study showed an 8 percent reversal in the treatment group compared to a 28 percent worsening in the group that followed more common moderate changes (JAMA. 1998;280(23):2001-2007).

Caldwell Esselstyn, M.D., did a small study with patients who had severe coronary artery disease. These patients followed a plant-based diet and did not have a single cardiac event over a 10-year period. They also experienced some reversal in atherosclerosis (J Fam Pract. 1995;41(6):560-8). These patients had a combined 50 cardiac events within the eight years before the study.

Fiber has been shown to decrease the risk of heart attacks. In a meta-analysis (a group of 10 studies), for every 10 gram increase in fiber there was an inverse 14 percent reduction in cardiac events (Arch Intern Med. 2004;164(4):370-376). If we increased the fiber intake daily by threefold to fourfold, we would achieve around a 50 percent reduction in risk. Considering most of us get 8 to 15 grams, it should be easy.

Raising the awareness that patients who are having a heart attack can present without chest pain, especially women, is extremely important in improving mortality. In addition, lifestyle modifications have shown a very powerful effect time and time again in reducing the risk of heart attacks and reversing the cause: atherosclerosis.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, go to the website www.medicalcompassmd.com and/or consult your personal physician.