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These 6 heart attack symptoms in women are key signs to look out for, doctor shares

Heart attack warning signs for women
Heart attack warning signs and symptoms women should not ignore 04:29

Heart disease is the leading cause of death among women in the United States, killing more than 300,000 every year — yet only about half of women are aware of the risks, signs and symptoms of heart attacks. 

On National Wear Red Day, which is observed on Feb. 2 to raise awareness for cardiovascular disease, CBS News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook joined "CBS Mornings" to share what women should know. 

While rates have decreased in the past 20 years, LaPook says far too many are still dying from heart disease.

"It's a dangerous misconception that heart disease is somehow exclusively a male disease," he said. "It's the No. 1 killer in women. There's a reason why we're wearing red today, and that's to bring attention to this, because attention and understanding translates to save lives."

Signs of heart attack in women

For women, LaPook says the most common symptoms of heart attacks include:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath

However, there can be some more atypical symptoms, including: 

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Pain in your jaw, back or other areas

Heart disease risk factors

There are several risk factors when it comes to heart disease, including:

  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • Obesity
  • Inactivity

"Access to care is another thing," LaPook adds. "You have to be able to actually see a doctor."

He also pleads: "No smoking!"  "That's one of the big reasons for the drop is the decline in smoking," he notes.

Is there a screening for heart disease?

Knowing your numbers early on — for things like weight, blood pressure and more — is the best way to keep an eye on heart health.

"It's not something where you want to wait until you have symptoms and then say, 'OK, now I'm going to really get into it.' This should be a lifelong thing. So, from birth, you want to have healthy habits," LaPook says. That includes maintaining a healthy weight and knowing "what your numbers are."

"High blood pressure is silent very often, so you want to know those numbers. You want to make sure you're not diabetic, you want to make sure your lipids are OK."

Heart health and pregnancy

Pregnancy is a "big stress test," LaPook says. Just like you wouldn't start training the day before running a marathon, he explains you also want to go into pregnancy with good overall health.  

"Part of that means access to care, making sure that you know your numbers, that you're the right weight," he says. He also noted the heightened concerns for Black women, who face an increased mortality rate during pregnancy.

"It's a problem that's been addressed, but sporadically and not well enough, and the reasons for it are multifactorial — it's social determinants of health," LaPook said. "If you don't have access to good housing and good food and access to care, and then on top of that, of course, we know there's implicit bias, and these all combined to increase mortality for Black women."

High blood pressure is another concern — and the most prevalent cardiovascular condition during pregnancy, according to a statement from the American Heart Association released earlier this month.

"In the last two decades, there has been a 25% increase in preeclampsia, a condition characterized by high blood pressure and high levels of protein in the urine during pregnancy," the AHA noted.

Preeclampsia can cause organ damage, in particular the heart and the nervous system, Dr. Céline Gounder, a CBS News medical contributor and editor-at-large for public health at KFF Health News, explained during an appearance on "CBS Mornings" as part of American Heart Month in February.

"If it is affecting the nervous system, a woman could end up with seizures, you can end up with a stroke," Gounder says. "High blood pressure can also lead to detachment of the placenta from the uterine wall, which is obviously dangerous to the pregnancy."

While it can be treated, there are long-term risks to somebody who develops preeclampsia during pregnancy. Gounder says going into pregnancy healthy is key.

"Higher rates of high blood pressure, of diabetes, of obesity — that certainly increases your risk of preeclampsia," she says, adding postnatal care is also important. 

Rising preeclampsia rates pose increased heart health risk for pregnant women 03:10

"A lot of women are overwhelmed after giving birth. They pay attention to the needs of the baby but not to themselves. And about 40% of women do not engage in postnatal care — so care for themselves after a pregnancy," Gounder says. "More and more states are recognizing the importance of postnatal care that the risk extends out to one year after giving birth. And so more states are extending Medicaid coverage after delivery from six weeks now, as far as out to a year."

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