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What’s Behind Women’s Reluctance to Get Help at Signs of Heart Trouble?

March 15, 2021

Women often fail to seek help after signs of heart trouble, according to a recent study.

Researchers dug deep into data from more than 705,000 patients from 30 countries who received care for a heart attack between January 2000 and December 2019, publishing the results in the American Journal of Cardiology. They found women – the wives, mothers and ultimate caregivers – took longer to reach out for medical attention and, therefore, did not receive life-saving care as quickly as men. The death rate in the hospital, repeat heart attacks, stroke and major bleeding also were much higher for the women studied.

“I have seen that women often delay seeking care when they are experiencing chest pain and other cardiac symptoms,” said Dr. Stephanie Saucier, cardiologist and director of the Women’s Heart Wellness Program at Hartford HealthCare’s Heart & Vascular Institute.

The reasons can vary – women have different and more subtle symptoms of heart attack than men, and heart disease is often thought of as a male-only disease — but she said women see themselves as the caregiver of others.

“Women are often the primary caretakers for many and they put their fears and symptoms aside in order to take care of others,” Dr. Saucier said. Women also downplay their symptoms, hoping that they will resolve on their own.”

There is real danger in doing that, though. When care is delayed, the mechanical complications of the heart muscle not receiving enough oxygen for a prolonged period of time which can lead to catastrophic complications, she said.

“Delayed intervention can lead to scarring of the heart muscle and heart failure,” she said. “This absolutely can be life or death in many cases, with poor prognosis in patients with advanced heart failure, sudden valve abnormalities and arrhythmias or life-threatening irregular heart rhythms.”

Women should pay attention to their bodies and know the signs of heart trouble.

These can include:

  • Chest pain.
  • Sudden difficulty breathing.
  • Heart racing.
  • Decreased ability to exercise.

Dr. Saucier stressed that other symptoms can be more subtle in women, such as pain in the shoulder or back.

“I encourage all of my patients to trust their body. If they feel something is wrong, they should seek immediate care,” she said. “I also encourage women who are experiencing concerning symptoms to call 911 and should not drive themselves to the hospital.”