It is important to recognize the signs of a heart attack, which can vary by person. Sometimes a person may have a heart attack without realizing it and not seek the emergency medical care they need. That could lead to lasting heart damage.

The medical name for a heart attack is a myocardial infarction (MI).

A heart attack usually happens because a coronary artery becomes blocked, reducing or stopping the nourishing blood supply to the heart muscle.

Chest pain is the most recognized sign of a heart attack, but the symptoms someone experiences can depend on their gender and age.

It is essential to identify a heart attack as early as possible and seek prompt medical attention. Treatment can minimize damage and increase the chances of a full recovery.

This article looks at the various symptoms of heart attacks, how these may vary in females and older adults, and when to seek medical attention. It also looks at risk factors, treatment, and prevention.

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Most people know that chest pain is a typical heart attack symptom. However, a heart attack can affect the entire body, not just the heart.

Individuals of different ages and sexes may experiences heart attack symptoms differently.

Most heart attacks do have several defining symptoms, which according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are:

Chest pain

Heart attacks typically involve some level of pain or discomfort in the chest’s middle or left side. It may feel like sharper pain, or more like squeezing, fullness, or uncomfortable pressure.

Difficulty breathing

Usually, this accompanies chest pain, but shortness of breath may also begin before any chest discomfort.

Upper body pain

A person may feel pain or discomfort in one or both arms, which can radiate to the shoulders. There may also be pain in the neck, jaw, or back.

Feeling lightheaded

Someone may feel weak, faint, or break out into a cold sweat.

Heart attack symptoms may show up differently in females, and may seem less evident or unrelated to heart problems.

The following are common heart attack symptoms in females that can occur with or without chest pain:

  • sleep disturbances
  • weakness that occurs suddenly
  • extreme shortness of breath
  • nausea, indigestion, or other digestive upsets
  • all over body aches
  • a general feeling of being unwell
  • discomfort in the back or upper body

Because heart attacks are commonly associated with chest pain, females often misread their symptoms and delay consulting a doctor.

It is crucial that everyone, especially females, recognize heart attack symptoms that may be atypical and seek immediate medical help when necessary.

Like females, older adults who experience heart attacks may have non-typical symptoms.

Asymptomatic or silent heart attacks are more common in older adults, and chest pain is an infrequent finding.

During a silent heart attack, someone may experience no symptoms and feel relatively well apart from feeling unusually tired or short of breath. They may also show one or more of the signs associated with heart attacks in females.

The National Heart, Lung, And Blood Institute state that acting quickly could save someone’s life in the case of a heart attack.

Even if an individual is not entirely certain they are experiencing a heart attack, it is best to seek emergency medical help to limit any potential damage to the heart.

The consequences of an untreated heart attack could be severe.

People should always seek medical attention if they suspect a heart attack.

If someone experiences heart attack symptoms for more than 15 minutes, the heart’s muscle cells are at a high risk of damage.

From the onset of symptoms, an individual has less than 90 minutes before critical damage levels occur.

If the heart does not receive oxygenated blood, it cannot function normally, which can cause a heart attack. This can happen when a coronary artery is partially or fully blocked.

The most common cause of blocked coronary arteries is coronary heart disease.

When coronary heart disease occurs, fats and cholesterol can form deposits or plaques on the arterial walls, called atherosclerosis.

Over time, the plaques narrow the arteries, and eventually, this obstructs blood flow.

Use of recreational drugs, such as cocaine, can also cause heart attacks.

Several factors increase an individual’s risk of a heart attack. These include being age 65 or over, being male, or having a family history of heart disease.

Race also plays a part, as people of African, Mexican, and American Indian descent are at higher risk.

There are also modifiable factors that increase the risk of heart attacks. These include:

The good news is that people can change, treat, or control the modifiable risk factors to reduce the chances of having a heart attack.

Anyone who thinks they are having a heart attack should immediately seek medical attention.

A doctor will diagnose heart attack based on symptoms, age, general health, and family history. They will also carry out tests including:

  • electrocardiography (ECG) to measure the heart’s electrical activity
  • blood tests to measure cardiac markers that indicate damage to the heart
  • imaging tests, such as chest X-rays and echocardiograms
  • coronary angiography to locate blockages in the arteries

If the tests show that an individual has had a heart attack, doctors may recommend the following procedures:

  • coronary angioplasty to open blocked arteries
  • stent procedure to support an artery with a wire mesh tube
  • bypass surgery to create new routes for blood to flow around the blockage
  • implantable devices such as a pacemaker to help the heart beat normally
  • artificial heart valve surgery to replace abnormal or leaky heart valves

A doctor may also treat a heart attack with medications to thin the blood, break up clots, relax the blood vessels, and help with pain relief.

Heart attacks can damage the heart muscle, leading to complications including:

  • Abnormal heart rhythms, or arrhythmias
  • Heart failure because of extensive damage
  • Sudden cardiac arrest due to electrical disturbances

The severity and duration of any complications often depend on how much damage the heart attack caused to the heart muscle.

Although people cannot control all the risk factors of heart attacks, such as gender, age, and genetics, habit changes could help with prevention. These include:

  • stopping smoking
  • choosing a healthful diet that’s low in sodium, saturated fats, and sugar
  • limiting alcohol intake
  • exercising regularly
  • controlling blood sugar
  • maintaining healthy cholesterol and blood pressure

Fortunately, for most people, having a heart attack does not mean the end of a normal, healthy life. However, around 20% of people over age 45 will have further heart attacks in the 5 years following their first.

For this reason, it is important to focus on living a lifestyle that can help prevent heart problems in the future.

Although most people are familiar with a heart attack’s common signs, such as chest pain and breathlessness, they may not realize that females and older adults can experience heart attacks differently.

In these groups, heart attack symptoms such as indigestion and extreme fatigue can seem unrelated.

If someone is experiencing any symptoms that may be related to heart problems, they should seek immediate medical attention.

Prompt treatment can save someone’s life and prevent permanent heart damage from occurring.