Campaign Aims to Educate Women About Symptoms of Heart Attack

AAFP Supports HHS Initiative That Stresses Timely Treatment

February 07, 2011 06:35 pm News Staff

Only half of American women know the symptoms of a heart attack, according to the American Heart Association, and fewer than half would call 911 if they thought they were having one. That's why the AAFP is one of nearly two dozen organizations supporting an HHS initiative launched Feb. 1 that aims to educate women about the most common symptoms of heart attack and encourage them to call 911 as soon as they experience symptoms.

"Family physicians see so many women," AAFP Board Chair Lori Heim, M.D., of Vass, N.C., told AAFP News Now. "One thing we can do is help them understand their (heart attack) risks.

"Second, they need to call 911 when they have symptoms. Women are less likely to get timely care. Their reactions in calling for an ambulance or going to an emergency room are delayed. As we know, delays result in poorer outcomes."

Know the Symptoms

According to HHS' Make the Call. Don't Miss a Beat( website, the most common symptoms of heart attack are

  • chest pain, discomfort, pressure or squeezing;
  • shortness of breath;
  • nausea;
  • light-headedness or sudden dizziness;
  • unusual upper body pain, or discomfort in one or both arms, back, shoulder, neck, jaw, or upper part of the stomach;
  • unusual fatigue; and
  • breaking out in a cold sweat.

Women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of these symptoms, HHS said, including shortness of breath; nausea and vomiting; fatigue; and pain in the back, shoulders, and jaw.

AAFP Helps You Manage Your Patients With Heart Disease

To help you keep your clinical skills at their sharpest, American Family Physician's new AFP By Topic feature includes a collection of up-to-date journal articles and other evidence-based resources on coronary artery disease/coronary heart disease (some content is available to members/paid subscribers only).

The Academy also offers a number of resources to help educate patients about heart disease and how to avoid it.'s Heart Disease and Heart Attacks: What Women Need to Know( Web page discusses how to recognize heart attack symptoms and what women can do to lower their heart attack risk. The page also links to other pages on heart disease and related conditions, as well as to other relevant organizations' websites.

Know the Risks

According to the CDC, in 2006, nearly 7 percent of both white and Mexican-American women had coronary heart disease, and nearly 9 percent of black women had the disease. Heart disease claimed the lives( of nearly 316,000 American women that year.

The agency said that 90 percent of heart disease patients have at least one risk factor for heart disease, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, cigarette smoking or excessive alcohol use.

"It's very true that women have not previously recognized the significant risk for cardiovascular disease," Heim said. "It's important that we begin to understand the risk relative to deaths from heart attacks because that's the No. 1 killer of women."

The HHS campaign focuses on knowing the symptoms of a heart attack and educating women about what they should do if they have one. Heim said family physicians should deliver that important message, but the conversation also should include advice about prevention.

"Let's try to prevent heart attacks in the first place," she said. "Tell your patients, 'Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women, so if you want to lower your risk, let's talk about things like smoking, blood pressure, cholesterol and exercise.'"