The majority of these women recalled having early symptoms an average of six months before their heart attack. Black and white women had the same top five most-frequent symptoms, but they differed significantly when it came to many others.
"These women say, 'I would do anything to help another woman get diagnosed earlier and maybe save another life,' " said Jean C. McSweeney, a professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock who conducted the studies.
"Black women have more risk factors and more co-existing illnesses, which may account for some of this difference. But we will have to do further investigation to see if there are other factors," she said.
The findings from McSweeney's studies were presented Saturday to a conference by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, other federal health agencies and the American Heart Association. They resulted from interviews with 647 women between Sept. 1999 and Dec. 2001 at three medical centers in Little Rock, Ark., and at university hospitals in Columbus, Ohio, and Greensboro, N.C.
Fatigue, sleep disturbance, shortness of breath, indigestion and anxiety were the most common symptoms of heart disease reported by black and white women alike in McSweeney's study.
But blacks more often reported other significant symptoms, such as appetite changes, aching arms and frequent headaches.
The two studies, funded by $1.3 million in federal grants from the National Institute of Nursing Research, will continue another two years and eventually include equal numbers of white, black and Hispanic women. Future interviews also are planned in California, Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina and Texas.
The interviews with the women in the studies were conducted after they had a heart attack. McSweeney hopes to find out how important the symptoms are as a predictive factor by someday extending her research to include interviews with women who have not had one but may be at risk.
Heart disease is the biggest cause of death for American women, killing about 250,000 each year, but most women don't consider heart disease as "a woman's disease," said Terry Long, a spokeswoman for the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
One of every 10 American women between the ages of 45 and 64 has some form of heart disease, and one in four has it over 65, according to government statistics.