For the media

Silent heart attacks: What women need to know

By The Health News Team | February 20, 2024
Woman experiencing neck pain

Women can spend much of their lives worrying about the health of others. Whether it’s the health of children, parents, partners or friends, women are often the caretakers. But Dr. Suhail Zavaro, a Sharp Community Medical Group cardiologist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital, wants women to start taking care of themselves — and their heart health.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the U.S., responsible for about 1 in every 3 female deaths. About 45% of women age 20 and older have some form of heart disease. However, despite the shocking statistics and increased awareness about women’s heart health, only half of women recognize that heart disease is their greatest health threat.

This means some women will have no idea their heart health is at risk. And even when they have symptoms of a heart attack — when blood flow to the heart is reduced or blocked — they often dismiss them as other ailments. Thinking they’re overwhelmed by their daily responsibilities, not getting enough sleep or simply being run down, women may not recognize they might be having a “silent” heart attack.

A silent heart attack, the AHA says, is a heart attack that has no symptoms, minimal symptoms or unrecognized symptoms. You may feel completely normal the days before a heart attack, which often occur without premonitory symptoms,” Dr. Zavaro says.

What are common symptoms of heart attack?

According to Dr. Zavaro, doctors sometimes discover findings consistent with a heart attack on an echocardiogram, electrocardiogram (EKG), or other screenings in people who never had symptoms typical of heart attacks or knew they had a heart attack. These symptoms include:

  • Chest discomfort, which can come and go and feels like pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain

  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body, including the arms, back, neck, shoulders, jaw or stomach

  • Shortness of breath

  • Other signs, such as nausea, vomiting, lightheadedness or breaking out in a cold sweat

In women, signs of heart attack may be more subtle and be mistaken as symptoms of other less dangerous conditions, such as indigestion, panic attack, flu or even normal aging. Sometimes, a woman may simply feel very fatigued. However, if she is truly having a heart attack — silent or otherwise — the heart can be damaged, or death can occur if not treated.

If you are having symptoms that could be related to a heart attack, the AHA recommends you stay calm and call 911 immediately. Clearly state that you think you may be having a heart attack, not a panic or anxiety attack, so that you can receive immediate and appropriate treatment.

How can I avoid having a silent heart attack?

Dr. Zavaro recommends both women and men follow a healthy lifestyle to decrease the risk of heart disease as well as silent and recognized heart attacks. Talk with your doctor about your personal risk for heart disease, including a family history of heart disease, so you can create a plan to maintain or improve your heart heath.

Dr. Zavaro’s top tips for maintaining a healthy heart include:

  • Eat a healthy diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and fish and low in saturated fats, sweets and salt.

  • Exercise regularly, at least 30 minutes daily, 5 days a week.

  • Maintain a healthy body weight.

  • Avoid all kinds of smoking and vaping.

  • Reduce alcohol consumption.

  • Keep blood pressure under control.

  • Manage blood sugar levels.

  • Maintain recommended cholesterol levels.

  • Minimize stress.

“Love your heart,” Dr. Zavaro says. “It’s the hardest working muscle in the body — and the most important.”

Sharp HealthCare is the proud local sponsor of the American Heart Association Go Red for Women movement. Learn more about heart health, get the latest health and wellness news, trends and patient stories from Sharp Health News; and subscribe to our weekly newsletter by clicking the "Sign up" link below.

You might also like:

Get the best of Sharp Health News in your inbox

Our weekly email brings you the latest health tips, recipes and stories.