old couple smiling at each other

Is a heart attack the same for him as it is for her? Many people believe there’s a gender gap when it comes to heart attacks, with women experiencing slightly different symptoms than men, and responding to these differences. 

Differences between men and women 

But according to a Canadian heart researcher this commonly held belief has gotten ahead of the evidence. And it could be taking attention away from the critical heart attack survival message for both sexes: call 911, or get to a hospital, as soon as possible. “The claims of a heart attack gender gap have gone well beyond the science,” says Dr Pamela Ratner, a professor of nursing at the University of British Columbia.  The traditional image of the potential heart attack victim is that of a middle-aged, overweight, cigarette-smoking man. But, the fact is, heart disease doesn’t discriminate. In North America, it’s the leading cause of death for both men and women. Heart health educators have worked to make women equally aware of their risks. Ratner says, during this process, medical myths have arisen. 

For example, she points to a recent women’s magazine article cautioning readers that men and women have different heart attack symptoms. With heart attacks, the article asserts, women tend to experience less if any, chest pain.  “Maybe,” says Ratner. “But really we just don’t know.” She says that for both the majority of men and women chest pain or discomfort is the key symptom of a heart attack.  To sort out heart attack fact from fiction, Ratner is leading several studies looking at gender differences in how heart attack sufferers experience and respond to their symptoms. 

heart out of pomegranate

One study, involving about 1000 people in the Vancouver area, examined men’s and women’s knowledge of heart attack symptoms and best responses. It revealed that women were less likely to identify chest pain as a heart attack symptom. It’s a finding Ratner says could be a result of misinformation about women’s’ general experience of heart attacks.  It could also be about age; on average, women have heart attacks when they’re ten years older than men. “It’s possible that any differences in how some women and men experience heart attack symptoms are not because of their gender, but because of their age,” Ratner says. With older age comes other chronic disorders, such as diabetes, which may alter heart attack symptoms. 

How to react when having a heart attack?

Ratner is also concerned about how heart attack victims respond to symptoms, such as how quickly they sought help. There’s a common belief, notes Ratner, that women wait longer to respond to heart attack symptoms. She’s leading another study to examine this issue in more detail. For both men and women, she says the key life and death decision in a heart attack is how quickly the patient calls 911 or gets to a hospital.  “Whether you’re male or female, if you seek treatment within the first few hours of a heart attack, your outcome is far better.” The experts’ message is that being active can be part of one’s daily routine, like taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Playing with the dog. Or the kids. It all accumulates and is good for us. No need to go for the burn – go for the fun. No need to go for the burn – go for the fun

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