Heart Attack: Different For Women

Donna Babb, heart attack survivor
New research on women and heart attacks casts doubt on conventional wisdom. It turns out there are a number of early warning sighs for women, and in most cases, chest pain is not the most reliable, reports CBS News Correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin.

Women are more likely to experience fatigue, sleep disturbance and have trouble breathing in the month leading up to a heart attack.

In a study of more than 500 women who had had heart attacks, 70.7 percent reported unusual fatigue, 47.8 percent had trouble sleeping and 42.1 percent experienced shortness of breath before their heart attacks.

"We were surprised that 95 percent of the women did report these symptoms," says the University of Arkansas's Jean McSweeney.

Chest pain, however, was not a common complaint.

"Only 30 percent of these women ever complained of any chest discomfort and rarely if ever did they describe it as pain," McSweeney says.

Chest pain, it turns out, is something men are more likely to experience and report prior to having a heart attack. Since little research has been done on warning signs in women, it was assumed they felt the same things.

Donna Babb had no chest pain, but reported nausea and sweatiness before her heart attack. When she was diagnosed, she was shocked.

"I didn't think I was having a heart attack. I was just having heartburns or indigestion or something. That's the way it felt," says Babb.

Women's health expert Dr. Neica Goldberg says the advance warning is what's key, especially in women with high risk factors.

"What's so important about this new research is that it identifies symptoms of heart attack in women that they could experience as much as one month before their heart attack," she says.

It's too soon to tell if the new symptoms can actually predict heart attack. If further study proves they can, many doctors think they'll have a better shot at preventing the number one killer of women.