Study: Heart attacks harder to detect in women

Wendy Kennedy with Dr. Joanne Foody, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.
Wendy Kennedy with Dr. Joanne Foody, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.
CBS News

A new study out today from The Journal of the American Medical Association reveals a dangerous difference in the symptoms men and women experience during a heart attack.

Heart attacks are the number-one killer of women, but CBS medical correspondent Dr. Jonathan LaPook reports they may be missing the warning signs.

Three years ago, when Wendy Kennedy noticed tingling and pain in her left arm, the last thing she thought of was a heart attack.

"I'm laying there as people are running to help me and they're grabbing my arms and putting an IV in," said Kennedy. "And I'm laying there saying, this doesn't happen to a 49-year-old woman."

But Kennedy did have a heart attack even though she didn't have the most typical symptom - chest pain. According to Dr. Joanne Foody, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital, that's not that uncommon.

"Some people, particularly women, may feel more indigestion and nausea," Foody said. "Women may also feel radiation of pain into the neck down the arm, as fairly typical."

A review of more than a million hospitalized heart attack patients found women are more likely than men to have heart attacks without typical chest pain.

A disturbing finding was that women experienced a higher mortality rate than men. The difference is even higher for those under age 55 without chest pain.

Dr. Steven Nissen of the Cleveland Clinic says younger women with heart attacks tend to have strong risk factors such as smoking, diabetes and a family history of heart disease.

"Many of us believe that women tend to be protected by their gender," Nissen said. "Younger women do have a lower incidence of heart disease. What that means therefore is that if you are a woman who has a heart attack, you've got some kind of pretty strong genetic or environmental predisposition to have a heart attack."

Dr. Foody says when it comes to surviving heart attacks, women need to be more vigilant about any new symptoms.

"I've had patients who don't want to go to the hospital," Foody said. "They're concerned about their kids, their family, whether dinner's on the table. So I think this is a time for women to be selfish and if they're having symptoms that they should go get them checked."

Dr. LaPook said in recent years survival has increased so early diagnosis is even more crucial.

  • Jon Lapook
    Jonathan LaPook

    Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the chief medical correspondent for CBS News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook