Heart attacks and cardiovascular diseases are often closely associated with men, but heart disease is the leading cause of hospitalization and premature death for women in Canada and across the globe. It impacts everyone, from the young to the elderly, even those who consider themselves fit and healthy. 

Dr. Tara Sedlak, cardiologist and Director of the Leslie Diamond Women’s Heart Health Clinic at VGH, shares her tips on identifying signs of heart disease in women so that you are well equipped to respond if the time comes. 

Dr. Tara Sedlak on Wear Red Day.


Pay attention for unique heart attack symptoms 

The most common heart attack symptom in women is the same in men—chest pain, pressure or discomfort that lasts more than a few minutes, or comes and goes. However, women are more likely to have heart attack symptoms unrelated to chest pain. These include: neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back or upper belly discomfort; shortness of breath; pain in one or both arms; unusual or extreme fatigue; nausea and/or vomiting; sweating; lightheadedness or dizziness; and heartburn (indigestion).  

If you or someone you know experiences these symptoms, call for emergency medical help immediately. 

Know the precursors 

Unlike men, women have a number of other specific precursors to heart disease. Our hearts are impacted two-to-four times more from diabetes, including diabetes during pregnancy. Pregnancy and pregnancy-related health problems such as hypertension have been marked as precursors to heart problems later in life. And menopause and other hormonal changes can all impact women’s heart health. 

Heart disease starts in the smaller blood vessels  

Women’s heart disease often appears in the smaller blood vessels of the heart rather than the major coronary arteries. This means women’s symptoms might not fit the classic textbook picture of heart disease, and the “gold standard” angiogram test is less effective at detecting a problem. Be sure to ask about other methods of diagnosis to help get on the path to treatment sooner. 

Above all, trust your gut 

On one of my first hospital rotations as a resident in medical school, I witnessed the impact of being a woman with heart disease. A female patient I encountered had spent hours that day trying to receive help, but was dismissed with having an “anxiety attack”—but she knew that wasn’t the case. Fact is, women are more often dismissed when seeking help for heart disease symptoms, so if you know something is wrong, advocate for yourself and get the care you need. 

With the right information and action, it’s possible to prevent heart disease or improve your chances of surviving it so that you can lead a healthy life. 

Download Dr. Sedlak’s printable info sheet at vghfoundation.ca/womens-heart-health.