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Female runners: how to recognize the signs of heart attack

Most healthy women don't recognize sudden exhaustion, nausea or abdominal pain as signs of heart attack–and, tragically, neither do their doctors

woman running

If you’re of the female sex, you know there are challenges to being XX that men just aren’t experiencing–from the struggle to find apparel that keeps the girls tucked comfortably in place and the crappy feeling when Aunt Flo pays a visit, to the added stress many women experience trying to find time in a hectic day to escape for a run. 

But the challenges of being a female runner reach far beyond the sports bra display. University of Alberta researcher and women’s healthcare expert and advocate Dr. Colleen Norris says it’s what women don’t know about being female that’s debilitating and killing our women friends faster than race pace.

female runner
Close up of female senior runner outdoors

Norris is raising the alarm about the need to educate women and healthcare professionals about women’s heart health—how the signs of heart attack and heart disease in women differ from men and are often overlooked. 

Now let’s be honest. If you’re an active woman of healthy weight, a non-smoker, and you’d say you live a healthy lifestyle (which may include an occasional wine Wednesday), would it cross your mind that your exhaustion or nausea are signs of a heart attack? Would you ignore them and chalk them up to stress, flu or over-training? If you said yes, you’re not alone. Some types of heart attacks, including spontaneous tearing of the coronary artery (SCAD), which rarely happen in men, are happening all too frequently to healthy women with no known risk factors. 

woman in gym doing pistol squat

Most women are unaware that signs of heart attack can include sudden or unusual exhaustion, nausea or stomach pain, symptoms experienced more often in women than men. But a sudden change in how you feel, breaking out in a cold sweat, upper body pain in neck, back or limbs, sharp chest pain or discomfort and light-headedness or shortness of breath are also signs. 

If you’d ignore the signs, Norris says you’re excused. What she says is shocking and inexcusable are her research findings, which revealed that women are showing up in emergency rooms experiencing signs of heart attack and sent home without being properly diagnosed. She found that between 2010 and 2020, an average of 300 women per year were misdiagnosed and left Alberta hospitals, only to return within 30 days experiencing a heart attack. While these findings are from Alberta, the misdiagnosing of heart attack in women is happening everywhere. 

women runners

So what’s the answer? Education. The Canadian Women’s Heart Health Alliance, along with Norris, are hosting outreach programs and using social media platforms to reach women and share their messages, inviting everyone to get informed and reshare life-saving facts within their social circles. 

But knowing the signs is only part of the battle. Norris says that educating the medical profession is critical and challenging, with a lack of research and education about women’s health leading, all too often, to misdiagnosis. Materials and courses are dated, and getting the medical community to revamp curricula takes time.

In the meantime, she has tips for women about talking to their healthcare provider. 

Speak up! Make it clear that your symptoms do not seem normal for you. Have your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar tested. It’s helpful to know your blood pressure, heart rate averages and what’s normal for you. Sport watches and apps can be useful to track and monitor your health. 

woman running in winter

Consider questions before your visit, and take notes. Insist on an electrocardiogram and blood tests that can diagnose a heart attack, ask for definitions of medical jargon, next steps and what to do if you don’t get better or symptoms recur. Seek follow-up tests, and don’t be afraid to ask to see a doctor who specializes in heart health. 

Heart attack and heart disease are killing six times more women than breast cancer with a woman in Canada dying every 20 minutes from a heart-related event. 

The next time you’re out for a run with the gals, take a minute to talk about some of the shocking stats and signs of heart attack. If a lady in your life mentions a sign and passes it off as nothing, be there to sound the alarm. There are too many kilometers left to be run, race bibs to collect and bras to complain about to let our women friends have a heart attack that goes undiagnosed. 

Sharon Gingrich is a 58-year-old Edmonton runner who, at 56, experienced a SCAD heart attack and now volunteers with Wear Red Canada, alongside University of Alberta researcher and Cavarzan Chair in Mature Women’s Health Research Dr. Colleen Norris, to help promote women’s heart health. 

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