Heart disease is the leading cause of death among men and women in America, killing nearly 700,000 people a year. But studies have long shown that women are more likely than men to dismiss the warning signs of a heart attack, sometimes waiting hours or longer to call 911 or go to a hospital.
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Now researchers are trying to figure out why. They have found that women often hesitate to get help because they tend to have more subtle heart attack symptoms than men – but even when they do go to the hospital, health care providers are more likely to downplay their symptoms or delay treating them. Health authorities say that heart disease in women remains widely underdiagnosed and under treated, and that these factors contribute to worse outcomes among women and heightened rates of death from the disease.
Most studies suggest that a major reason women delay seeking care – and are often misdiagnosed – is because of the symptoms they develop. While chest pain or discomfort is the most common sign of a heart attack in both sexes, women who have heart attacks are far less likely than men to have any chest pain at all. Instead, they often have symptoms that can be harder to associate with cardiac trouble, like shortness of breath, cold sweats, malaise, fatigue and jaw and back pain. A report by the American Heart Association found that heart attacks are deadlier in women who do not exhibit chest pain, in part because it means both patients and doctors take longer to identify the problem.