What to know about signs of a heart attack in women after Rosie O'Donnell survived one

Rosie O'Donnell revealed she entirely brushed off her heart attack symptoms in 2012.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

Heart attack symptoms are often missed in women. Here's what to know. (Getty, Canva)
Heart attack symptoms are often missed in women. Here's what to know. (Getty, Canva)

Symptoms of a heart attack are too often missed or ignored in women — including former talk show host Rosie O'Donnell.

O'Donnell, 61, revealed she suffered a "massive heart attack," also known as a "widowmaker," in 2012 and entirely brushed off her symptoms.

HuffPost reported O'Donnell appeared on "The Best Podcast Ever" when she recalled the cardiac event. "She didn’t think there was anything out of the ordinary when her arm began to hurt after helping a stranger into their car. That was, until her son told her she looked as pale as a ghost," the U.S. outlet wrote.

"I should've died," O'Donnell said in the podcast, adding she Googled symptoms of a heart attack in women and had some of them, but didn't want to sound the alarms. Two days went by before she went to the hospital, where she learned she had a 100 per cent blockage of the left anterior descending artery, according to HuffPost.

I should've died.Rosie O'Donnell (via 'The Best Podcast Ever')

"And then I came to find out that the symptoms for a woman having a heart attack are very different than the symptoms for men having heart attacks."

The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada provided data that:

  • Two-thirds of all heart disease and stroke clinical research has focused on men

  • The number one cause of premature death in women in Canada is heart disease and stroke

  • Half of women who experience a heart attack have their symptoms go unrecognized

But how exactly are the symptoms different? Read on for everything you need to know.

Symptoms of heart attack for women: Common and often missed

Closeup image of a woman with hands on chest, sudden heart attack, suffering from chest pain
Heart attack symptoms can be very mild in women and sometimes without pain. (Getty)

Lindsay Love, the clinical manager of cardiac catheterization labs and the cardiac triage office at the University Health Network in Toronto, tells Yahoo Canada some symptoms of heart attacks are well-known and common.

"Lots of people cite having chest pain or discomfort. Sometimes it feels like a tightness or a heaviness, like something heavy is being pushed down on your chest," Love explained.

"I think the most stereotypical symptom is pain that radiates from the chest to the left shoulder, maybe down the left arm. There's also shortness of breath, sometimes with or without chest discomfort. The pain can also radiate or in or the from the chest up to the jaw," she said, adding sometimes people also experience nausea and vomiting.

Heart and Stroke also adds sweating and light-headedness to the list of symptoms.

Women, however, may not always have these stereotypical signs of a cardiac event.

I have seen women who have a missed heart attack.Lindsey Love

According to Love, symptoms can be "very mild," such as just sweating, or upper body discomfort without pain.

"Just general aching or discomfort, light-headedness or dizziness, sometimes just shortness of breath. Nausea is another common one," she listed.

"It can be something that someone will, I think, try to explain the symptoms as a result of maybe GERD or thinking that it's something GI related," she claimed. That's why heart attacks can go unrecognized.

In a "widowmaker" heart attack, symptoms would be more severe and fatal consequences can occur "very quickly."

Why are women's heart attack symptoms often missed?

Red heart, stethoscope on cardiogram report of cardiology patient. Cardiologist and medical concept
Stereotypical portrayal of heart attacks on TV can also contribute to the lack of awareness. (Getty)

Love said symptoms are most commonly missed because people don't know what to look out for, and women might be more likely to brush off issues.

"I'm not sure if women seek health care at the same frequency that that men do, or if sometimes men are encouraged in self-care, when women don't always put themselves first."

Stereotypical portrayal of heart attacks in media can also contribute to the lack of awareness.

"A lot of what people are aware of symptoms they see on television... in shows like 'Grey's Anatomy' or 'ER' back in the day."

Women don't always have like the typical signs and symptoms that you will see on TV, where people are like clutching their chest.Lindsey Love

The consequences of missing symptoms, however, can be dire.

Love explained in a heart attack, the most important thing is to have the blockage in the coronary artery opened up. "For the time that passes by that blood flow isn't restored to that heart tissue, there's a bigger chance that hurt tissue dies."

When heart tissue dies, it can mean less blood pumping into other parts of the body, leading to a variety of health problems like kidney issues, difficulty breathing, lying down.

It also means monitoring things like drinking and salt intake, Love explained, adding it's associated with "a reduced quality of life." And, it "would definitely mean an earlier death."

Let us know what you think by commenting below and tweeting @YahooStyleCA! Follow us on Twitter and Instagram.