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Women more likely to die in the hospital after a heart attack, study finds
February 21st, 2012
04:20 PM ET

Women more likely to die in the hospital after a heart attack, study finds

Nearly every 34 seconds someone in the United States has a heart attack, according to the American Heart Association.  In fact, heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women in the U.S.

But that’s where some of the similarities end.

A study of heart attack patients finds that women are more likely than men to show up at the hospital without the classic chest pain symptoms of heart attack. The study also shows that women are more likely to die in the hospital following a heart attack. The study was published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Researchers used data from more than 1 million patients in the National Registry of Myocardial Infarction, a large national database of heart attack patients from about 1,600 acute care hospitals in the United States. Women comprised 42% of the patients in the study. The database is sponsored by Genentech, Inc., which makes an anti-clotting prescription drug, but that product was not discussed in this study, which focused on sex, age, and heart attack symptoms of hospital patients.

The heart is a muscle that requires oxygen to fuel it’s constant beating. When the blood flow bringing oxygen to the heart is impaired or cut off by a blockage, a heart attack occurs.

Recognizing that a patient is having a heart attack and beginning treatment quickly is vital to preserving the heart. Without blood flow and oxygen, the heart muscle begins to die, forming scars that damage and impair heart function, and producing serious long term health problems.

“Patients without chest pain/discomfort tend to present later, are treated less aggressively, and have almost twice the short-term mortality compared with those presenting with more typical symptoms of [heart attack]," the study authors write.

While the symptoms of heart attack typically include chest pain and discomfort, likened to having an elephant sitting on your chest, previous studies have shown that women often have less typical heart attack symptoms including dizziness, shortness of breath, upper back pressure, extreme fatigue, nausea, or pressure in the lower chest or belly, according to the American Heart Association.

Among the study participants, women presenting with heart attacks were older than men, averaging 74 years compared to 67 years for men. Women were also less likely to have chest pains or discomfort – 42% of women had no chest pains, compared to only 30.7% of men without chest pains.

Age was also a factor for symptoms: Younger women were less likely to have chest pain symptoms compared to men of the same age, although that difference equalized among the sexes with increasing age. In-hospital deaths for women was 14.6%, compared to 10.3% for men.

While the authors note the reasons for sex-based differences in heart attacks are largely unknown, they cite research suggesting that estrogen in women may have a protective effect on their hearts. The study concludes that more research - specifically looking at differences in symptoms between the sexes and age groups - is needed to better identify heart attacks that may have atypical symptoms.


soundoff (51 Responses)
  1. Charis

    The heart is a muscle that requires oxygen to fuel ITS constant beating, not "it's" constant beating. Sweet Bleeding Gums Murphy, can't CNN hire a copy editor who knows the difference?? I'd do it for free!

    February 22, 2012 at 00:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. mickimause

    CNN has copy editors? Is this new?

    February 22, 2012 at 05:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Coriolana

    If the AMA and researchers had spent as much $ and time devising tests for heart health on BOTH genders, this would not have been such an issue for the past 40 years plus.

    February 22, 2012 at 11:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Seriously

    Has there ever been a study that did not require further study?

    February 22, 2012 at 12:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. c s

    Look up on the WEB "Risk Assessment Tool for Estimating Your 10-year Risk of Having a Heart Attack" and you can judge your own heart attack risk. Typically a woman will have the same risk as a man several years younger. Since older woman have their first heart attack at a much older age than a man, perhaps their physical condition is much worse and this partly explains their difference in outcome. In this study, the average age for a women was 74 compared to the average age of 67 for men.

    February 22, 2012 at 16:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Luis

    Jabber,I am so sorry to hear about your brother... I can unerastdnd the pain you and your family must feel after losing a loved one who could have gotten help if only someone had paid attention. It is scary–but the best thing to do as you say is to advocate for ourselves and to bring someone with us to the hospital to help. I once had an ectopic pregnancy (what haven't I had!) and my husband took me to the emergency room where they initially told me to "have a seat." But he knew what was going on and just yelled, "She's got an ectopic pregnancy and I'm a lawyer!" I was in the operating room in a flash.

    August 2, 2012 at 07:21 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.