According to recent American research, heart disease in young women-under 55 is an aggressive disease that has to be dealt with aggressively.
A study presented at the American Heart Association's (AHA) scientific forum on Quality of Care and Outcomes Research in Cardiovascular Disease and Stroke, in Washington, D.C., says that women under the age of 55 often fail to recognize the symptoms of a heart attack until it's too late.
Ignoring those signs, experts say, which can include anything from chest pain to nausea can delay medical care and increase risks for disability and even death.
Says Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, director of Women & Heart Disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City:"Women of this age range, when they go into the hospital with heart disease or a heart attack, their likelihood of dying from that event is two times that of a man.
"Heart disease in young women is a very, very aggressive disease, and it needs to be addressed early and aggressively", she added.
Although women younger than 55 years make up less than 5 percent of all hospitalized heart disease patients, this is still a large number of women, according to the AHA. Young women with heart disease account for about 40,000 hospitalizations each year and 16,000 deaths.
The number of younger women who die from coronary heart disease each year is about equivalent to the number of women who die of breast cancer in the same age group, the association stresses.
"Women in this age group may not think they're really at risk, because we mostly hear about older women," says study author Judith Lichtman, an assistant professor of epidemiology and public health at Yale University School of Medicine. "But while it's a relatively smaller group, it's not an insubstantial group."
Focusing only on chest pain could cost lives, experts warn. Other studies have shown that women often have symptoms other than chest pain.
For this study, researchers interviewed two dozen women aged 18 to 55 who had had heart attacks and were admitted to one of two Connecticut hospitals. Three-quarters of the women were white, and 88 percent had a family history of heart disease.
The vast majority (88 percent) reported traditional symptoms of severe chest pain. Yet only 42 percent suspected something was wrong with their heart.
Less typical symptoms included pain in the jaw/shoulder area (experienced by 58 percent of the women); sweating (38 percent); nausea (29 percent); shortness of breath (29 percent); indigestion (21 percent) and weakness/fatigue (8 percent).
Yet, only half of the women in this study sought care within the first hour, apparently because they thought their symptoms weren't real or weren't serious. Forty-two percent of participants thought their symptoms were something other than a heart attack; 17 percent said they were embarrassed by the symptoms; and 8 percent said they were afraid the symptoms were due to a heart condition.
Almost three-quarters (71 percent) of the women characterized their health as either just fair or poor, yet less than half believed they were at risk for heart disease. Just over one-third (38 percent) saw their primary provider for symptoms prior to having a heart attack. And only 56 percent of the women said their doctors said their symptoms were heart-related. And this was among a group of women almost all of whom had a family history of heart disease.
"This is really the first time research has focused on women aged less than 55," Steinbaum says.
"The writing is on the wall. Don't attribute it to something else", the author warns.
Given the results of this study, it is imperative for physicians and young women to be better able to recognize early heart attacks and prevent heart disease.
Recognizing early heart attacks helps prevent the larger heart attack, where more heart function is lost, recovery is longer and the risk of mortality is higher.
Women who can recognize a possible early heart attack may also be candidates for varying medical and surgical interventions that help prevent the larger, more dangerous heart attack, say health specialists.