Jeff Angileri
Feb 3, 2009, 11:32 AM

Imagine this: you are going about your day when all of a sudden it feels like you've been hit by a truck. You're extremely fatigued and weak like you have the flu. Must be a bug going around, right? Maybe picked up something from the kids? Stop. If you're a woman, these could be signs you're having a heart attack.

The symptoms of heart attack in females often are not characteristic of those in men, says Dr. Vijay Kantamneni, a cardiovascular surgeon with the Dean & St. Mary's Cardiac Center. Women's heart disease tends to be more diffuse or spread throughout the arteries and this causes less defined or typical symptoms.

With men, plaque tends to build up or form lesions in the arteries and that causes sudden tightness in the chest along with the typical sharp pain in the arm during a heart attack. But with women, the plaque tends to build up uniformly. This makes it hard for doctors to identify that women have heart disease and can mean during a heart attack, that a woman's symptoms manifest themselves in many other ways.

They may have symptoms like chest pressure, shortness of breath, jaw pain or shoulder pain, says Dr. Kantamneni.

More than 70 percent of all women come to hospitals while having a heart attack with symptoms like those described by Dr. Kantamneni. About 42 percent of them will die within a year of their heart attack, compared to 24 percent of men. Often, it's due to the fact that the symptoms are not recognized as a heart attack but something more benign.

Patients, especially women, need to realize that something isn't right, says Dr. Kantamneni. By telling your doctor, he or she can be more cautious and order additional tests if necessary. If a woman comes to the hospital with undiagnosed symptoms that could correlate to a heart attack, I go the extra step to make sure their heart is ok. That could mean an EKG, chest x-ray or even a stress test.

High blood pressure, smoking, obesity and diabetes all play a factor in a woman's risk of developing heart disease. Women who smoke, for instance, tend to have a heart attack 19 years earlier than non-smoking women. African American women also have a 72 percent higher risk for heart disease. These same women 55-64 years old are at double the risk for a heart attack as their Caucasian counterparts. But all hope is not lost. It's been proven, for instance, that women's hearts respond better than men's to healthy lifestyle changes.

Women have to be active and not just during the warm months, says Dr. Kantamneni, In winter there is some evidence that heart attacks increase and the mortality rate for women who suffer heart attacks is higher. That's why it's so important that women exercise year round.

Heart attacks tend to increase in the winter months due to sedentary lifestyles along with more irregular eating and the eating of richer foods. People also tend to ignore the signs and symptoms when they appear. Dr. Kantamneni says there's also some evidence now of a correlation between winter bugs that are passed around and heart attacks. This could mean that these illnesses impact the heart in some way.

So besides exercise what can a woman do to decrease her odds of a heart attack? First, be sure to eat properly. Also, don't smoke and keep control of high blood pressure and diabetes. Dr. Kantamneni also points out a new non-invasive test. A high resolution CT scan can find and diagnose calcium build-ups in arteries. These deposits are often early signs of heart disease

In the end it comes down to changing attitudes and lifestyles. Women need to realize they are at risk for heart disease and watch for the symptoms. The best solution is to decrease that risk by eating properly, exercising regularly and not smoking.

In the past men, were the highest risk category, says Dr. Kantamneni, But now the demographics have changed. Women live longer. One of the biggest risk factors for a heart attack is smoking. More women smoke now than men and we're seeing the effects on their heart.

Women & Heart Disease by the Numbers

6 - times more women die from heart attack vs. breast cancer

Under age 50 â€" when a woman's risk of dying from a heart attack is double that of men's

70.4 - The average age for a woman's heart attack

8 million â€" The number of women in the U.S. living with heart disease

8.6 million â€" The number of women worldwide who die from heart disease each year

Did you Know?

One out of every three deaths in women is due to heart disease.

Good for Bones, but What About the Heart?

Calcium supplements which many women take for osteoporosis may put a woman at higher risk for heart attack. Arterial plaque has calcium in it and evidence is just beginning to show that taking calcium may be the culprit.

Heart Attack Symptoms: Men vs. Women

Men: Tightness in the chest; pain in shoulder, neck or arm; increased or irregular heart beat; shortness of breath and cold sweat.

Women: Shortness of breath; weakness; and extreme sudden feeling of fatigue like the flu.

What is a Heart Attack?

Due to heart disease and other vascular diseases, plaque or a combination of fat and calcium can begin to coat the lining of our arteries. After it accumulates enough, it can impact the flow of blood. If enough blood flow is disrupted in an artery to the heart or it becomes blocked altogether, the heart is starved of oxygen and a heart attack results.