As ‘heart attack gender gap’ revealed, what are the signs and symptoms of one?

A "heart attack gender gap" is thought to be leading to the needless deaths of two women per day as they do not receive equal treatment to men, a charity has said.

Stark inequalities in awareness, diagnosis and treatment of heart attacks contributed to an estimated 8,000 plus women dying in England and Wales over a 10-year period from 2003-2013, the British Heart Foundation (BHF) said.

The charity said women delay seeking help when they experience symptoms, according to a new briefing, Bias And Biology: How The Gender Gap In Heart Disease Is Costing Women’s Lives.

There is a common perception that a heart attack is a man's disease, the BHF said.

However twice as many women die from coronary heart disease – the underlying cause of most heart attacks – than breast cancer in the UK, according to the charity.

Twice as many women die from coronary heart disease than breast cancer. Credit: PA

So, what are the signs and symptoms of heart attacks?

The symptoms of a heart attack vary from one person to another, but the most common signs are:

  • Pain or discomfort in your chest that suddenly occurs and doesn't go away - it may feel like pressure, tightness or squeezing

  • Pain that may spread to your left or right arm, or to your neck, jaw, back or stomach - for some people the pain or tightness is severe, while other people just feel uncomfortable

  • Feeling sick, sweaty, light-headed or short of breath

Other less common symptoms include:

  • A sudden feeling of anxiety that can feel similar to a panic attack

  • Excessive coughing or wheezing

However it is possible to have a heart attack without experiencing the symptoms above or 'classic' chest pain.

This is more common in the elderly, women, or those with diabetes as the condition can cause nerve damage which can affect how you feel pain.

  • What should I do if I think I'm having a heart attack?

The first thing to do if you think you're having a heart attack is to phone 999 immediately for an ambulance.

Don’t worry if you’re not completely sure whether your symptoms are a heart attack, it’s really important that you seek medical attention regardless.

After that, sit down and try to remain calm, and take a 300mg aspirin if you have one within reach.


Number of women admitted to hospital following a heart attack in the UK each year

Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan, consultant cardiologist and BHF associate medical director, said the charity was not pointing a finger at any individual or organisation, but highlighting a “deeply entrenched issue which manifests itself in a series of unconscious biases”.

She said: “Heart attacks have never been more treatable.

"Yet women are dying needlessly because heart attacks are often seen as a man’s disease, and women don’t receive the same standard of treatment as men.

“The studies detailed in this briefing have revealed inequalities at every stage of a woman’s medical journey.

“The reasons for this are complex to dissect. Together, we must change this.”

About 35,000 women are admitted to hospital following a heart attack in the UK each year – an average of 98 women a day, BHF said.

A BHF-funded study at the University of Leeds estimated that more than 8,200 heart attack deaths in women in England and Wales could have been prevented if they had received the same standard of care as men – the equivalent of two a day.

Heart attacks are typically thought of as affecting men more. Credit: PA

The BHF said research has shown women are 50% more likely than men to receive a wrong initial diagnosis when they are having a heart attack, increasing their risk of death.

Women take longer on average to arrive at hospital after the onset of symptoms than men, a global review found.

A BHF-funded study showed that women were 2.7% less likely to be prescribed statins and 7.4% less likely to be prescribed beta blockers when leaving hospital.

Risk factors for heart attack are also more serious for women – high blood pressure increases women’s risk 80% more, and Type 2 diabetes increases women’s risk 50% more.

The BHF said counterparts in the US and Canada have found a similar picture from the evidence.

Chris Gale, professor of cardiovascular medicine at the University of Leeds and lead author of some of the studies cited, said: “This problem is not unique to the UK – studies across the globe have also revealed gender gaps in treatment, suggesting this is a deeply entrenched and complex issue.

“On their own, the differences in care are very small, but when we look at this across the population of the UK, it adds up to a significant loss of life. We can do better.”