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Am I Having a Heart Attack?

Some signs are surprising — especially for women

Dinner Can Wait

Heart experts say one reason so many women die is that they often don't heed their symptoms. They may attribute their symptoms to hot flashes, flu, something they ate or their age. When they do realize something might be wrong, they delay getting treatment.

"Women don't call 911," says Sharonne Hayes, M.D., of the Mayo Clinic.

In fact, a 2009 American Heart Association survey found that only half of women say they would call 911 if they thought they might be having a heart attack. "They worry, 'What will the neighbors think?' or 'I've got to finish fixing dinner for my husband,' " Hayes says.

"Women don't call 911. They worry, 'What will the neighbors think?' or 'I've got to finish fixing dinner for my husband.'"

And women are more likely to consult with friends or call the family doctor, which Hayes says can cause a dangerous delay.

Studies also show that women who are diagnosed with a heart attack are more likely to have come to the hospital in a private car.

When people arrive at a hospital by ambulance, they usually get faster treatment, Hayes says.

"Patients should not be sitting at home trying to diagnose a heart attack," Hayes says. "They could die doing that."

Cardiologist Gordon Tomaselli says that often after people have a heart attack, they realize in retrospect they had symptoms days or weeks earlier that they didn't recognize — such as extreme fatigue or throat pain.

But as many as a quarter of all heart attack victims have a heart attack as a first symptom of heart disease.

Elizabeth Agnvall is a contributing editor with the AARP Bulletin.

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