Heart disease and stroke kill 31,000 women in Canada annually and you’re at higher risk if you have diabetes, are menopausal or are taking birth control or hormone replacement.

While this is a scary statistic, the good news is that by knowing the symptoms and embracing healthier habits, many of these risks can be addressed.

Know the symptoms

For women, the signs and symptoms of a heart attack can be very different than for men. We often picture a heart attack happening the way we’ve seen in movies – an older man clutches his chest or left arm and falls to the ground, complaining of crushing pain. This common portrayal can be misleading. Women often miss their symptoms, or misinterpret them as stress, heartburn or other minor health issues. Symptoms can come and go and will last for several minutes or longer as your heart struggles to pump blood.

Here are the most common symptoms women experience during a heart attack. Anyone experiencing these symptoms should call 911 right away. 

  • Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
  • Pain or discomfort outside of the chest area: in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
  • Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.

Embrace healthier habits

It’s a good idea to improve your habits to minimize the risk of heart attacks. Here are some things you can do right away:

  • Consult your doctor to assess your personal risk for heart disease.
  • Start an exercise program. The goal is to get 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity every week. This can be done in segments of 10 minutes or more and can include almost all kinds of exercise that gets your heart pumping faster.
  • Modify your diet if needed. Over time, high fat, high sodium foods can raise your blood pressure. Look for options with lower fat and keep an eye on processed foods, which can contain more sodium. Fill up on vegetables and lean proteins, cook more of your own meals so you can control the ingredients and if you drink alcohol, try to stay within the recommended guidelines for moderate drinking.
  • Quit smoking. If you smoke, now’s the time to stop. Just one year after you quit, you can cut your risk of heart disease by half.

With greater awareness and a healthy lifestyle, women can decrease their risk of heart attack. Check out the American Heart Association’s video Just a little heart attack to learn more.