His & Her Heart Attacks
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 differently.
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 000 (Australia), 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 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. The studies are funded by the Canadian Institutes
of Health Research (CIHR).
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
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 is 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.
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
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.