You might not expect these signs of a heart attack in women

A three-dimensional printout of a human heart.
PHOTO: Reuters

Heart diseases kill more people than all types of cancer combined, but people tend to ignore the symptoms of a heart attack when they experience it.

This is especially so for women, who can have very different heart attack symptoms from what we know to be the traditional signs always depicted in movies and medical materials.

Here are 10 often-missed symptoms that women experience when having a heart attack or in the days leading up to one.

1. Pain in the shoulder, neck, jaw or ear

Pay attention to any sudden tightness or numbness along your jaw, neck, ear or shoulder.

This painful sensation can extend down to your arm and may feel very much like a pulled muscle.

If you didn't do anything to cause a pulled muscle, you could be experiencing a heart attack.

2. Sweating or feeling unreasonably hot

If the weather isn't very warm and you haven't done anything to work up a sweat, you should be concerned if you suddenly start feeling warmer than everyone else in the room.

The sensation resembles a hot flash (commonly experienced by menopausal women), making it more difficult for women currently going through menopause to quickly identify it as a symptom of heart attack.

ALSO READ: Deciphering signs of a heart attack

3. Difficulty concentrating or remembering

Having memory problems or trouble focusing on a task at hand is another heart attack symptom that often gets overlooked.

It tends to get dismissed as a momentary cognitive slip, rather than something more serious.

4. Nausea or indigestion

Gastrointestinal problems like nausea and indigestion aren't always caused by food poisoning, ulcers, morning sickness or the stomach flu.

A heart attack can bring on nausea and vomiting as well.

Pay extra attention to this symptom, particularly if you don't believe you've eaten anything to cause nausea or indigestion.

5. Fatigue or exhaustion

Weeks or months before experiencing a heart attack, sufferers may feel extreme tiredness that impedes them from going about their normal routine.

If you notice yourself or a family member experiencing a lack of enthusiasm for any kind of activity due to being too "tired", pay attention to the problem.

ALSO READ: Why heart attacks can be more dangerous for women

6. Shortness of breath

Not being able to catch your breath when doing semi-vigorous tasks like household tasks or going up and down the stairs, should not be overlooked, especially when you are generally healthy and do not typically experience this issue.

7. Insomnia or sleeplessness

Feeling wired even though you are exhausted is one of the telltale signs of a heart attack.

Patients have described having unexplained insomnia, racing thoughts and a feeling of being keyed up during the weeks that preceded their heart attack.

You may also find yourself waking up frequently and being unable to fall back to sleep.

8. Anxiety and stress

Just like the other symptoms, stress is related to everyday triggers and can occur at any time.

But extreme moments of stress and anxiety can indicate a heart attack is coming.

If you feel more keyed up than usual, feel a sense of impending doom or a complete inability to cope with how you feel, be sure to check in with a doctor.

ALSO READ: Here are 10 signs of heart disease

9. Lightheadedness or dizziness

Feeling faint and shaky are common side effects of a heart attack in women.

You will feel like you need to lie down, and it might feel like the onset of a flu, rather than a heart attack.

10. Pressure in the chest area

Unlike men, women are more likely to feel like a heavy weight is pressing down on them, or like they can't breathe because something's compressing their lungs.

Reducing your risk

Typically, those with the lowest risk of heart disease are those who:

  • Don't smoke or quit smoking.
  • Follow a diet that's low in saturated fat and transfat, high in fibre and whole grains, and rich with legumes, fruits, leafy green vegetables, fish and folate-dense foods.
  • Treat and control their medical conditions, such as diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure, which are known risk factors for heart disease.
  • Lose weight and/or maintain their ideal body weight.
  • Participate in aerobic exercise for 30-40 minutes at least three to five times per week.

For menopausal women under the age of 60, taking bio-identical hormone replacement therapy (BHRT) outweighs any potential risks and may help prevent heart attacks.

However, each woman's situation is different. Speak to your doctor about whether BHRT is right for you.

ALSO READ: Are you at risk of developing heart disease?

When it comes to heart attacks, we are most familiar with someone clutching their chest and reporting a painful sensation before falling to the ground.

But there are many more symptoms that indicate a heart attack, and often, they are not symptoms that we link to heart problems right away.

It's important not to ignore the symptoms discussed above, as you never know if you might be having an episode.

Getting medical help when you experience them could save your life.