When you picture the typical heart attack patient, it’s probably an older man clutching his arm and grimacing in pain. But the truth is, heart disease isn’t just a man’s condition—it’s also the leading killer of women, claiming about one in every four females’ lives in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And while it’s true that our risk of having a heart attack increases as we age, younger women are not immune to them. In fact, the Women’s Heart Foundation says that of the 435,000 American women who have heart attacks annually, 8% of them of them are younger than 55.
What’s more, heart attacks under 50 are twice likely to be fatal for women as they are for men, possibly because women often ignore early warning signs. In a 2015 study published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, Yale University researchers interviewed women aged 30 to 55 who survived a heart attack and discovered many of the women brushed off pain, dizziness, and other symptoms. Additionally, a 2013 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine revealed that many younger women who survived heart attacks never experienced any chest pain.
Be sure to read more about the heart attack symptoms women should never ignore—knowing how to spot them could save your life, or someone else’s. And remember, women can suffer from heart attacks even when they’re in their 20s and 30s. The following three women know from experience, and share their harrowing stories.
Kara Spurling, 41, had a heart attack at age 39
As a former cardiology nurse, I knew all about the symptoms of a heart attack. But that was the farthest thing from my mind when I was hit with sudden chest pain one morning in 2013.
It was just a normal Saturday; I was sitting in bed with my husband and three-month-old baby, watching the news and drinking coffee. Looking back, I had all the classic symptoms: I felt dizzy and nauseous, and the chest pain was radiating out to my back. I knew something was wrong—and I knew I needed to get to the hospital—but I didn’t think I was having a heart attack.
I was just about to get into my car when I turned to my husband and said, “I’m not going to make it.” That’s when he called an ambulance, which was there in about two minutes. The firefighters came, too—they were rearranging my furniture in my living room while the EMTs put me on a gurney. They kind of swooped me away and we were off to the hospital. My husband was following behind the ambulance in my Toyota Highlander—later, he told me, “I didn’t know your car could do 95 miles per hour on the highway.” I had no idea how fast we were going.
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At the hospital, they took me into the trauma room right away. I only remember bits and pieces of the next 24 hours. I was an emotional wreck, so they kept me pretty sedated. I remember waking up and seeing my mom, waking up and asking where the baby was.
I was in the hospital for a total of five days, and used some of that time to research what had happened to me. The doctors were saying, “I’ve only seen one of these in my career,” or, “I’ve read about something like this, but I’ve never seen it.” I later learned that I had suffered a spontaneous coronary artery dissection, which occurs when a tear forms in a blood vessel. The tests also showed that I had fibromuscular dysplasia, a condition in which there are abnormal cell growths in one or more artery walls.
It was frustrating—I never smoked and didn’t have a family history. I kept thinking, “What did I do to cause this?” And I couldn’t do things I once did anymore, like carry my baby up the stairs. But time heals all things. I started going up to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and got involved with the WomenHeart organization. For years, never wanted to talk about it, but now I do so openly. I’m finally getting the strength to share my story.
Rolanda Perkins, 48, had a heart attack at age 39
There were a lot of things on my mind in the week leading up to my heart attack, but my symptoms weren’t exactly one of them. At the time, I was under a lot of stress: pulling the midnight shift at my job at a child-abuse hotline, while also planning a huge surprise party for my sister. I wasn’t sleeping well, and I internalized a lot of that pressure.
A week before the party, I started coming down with really bad headaches. Still, I self-medicated with Excedrin and I brushed it off as a migraine. I figured that I was just tired, and it would go away after everything calmed down.
I had a heart attack the day after the party, on a Sunday. I was mopping the floor when, all of a sudden, I felt a sharp pain in my chest. I’d never felt anything like that before. I thought maybe it was intense indigestion. And I remember thinking, “I’ll go to bed and deal with it tomorrow.” That didn’t happen: The pain was so bad that it woke me up at around 3:30 in the morning, and a friend drove me to the hospital. When I got there, the tests showed that I was having a heart attack, and the doctors performed an angioplasty—a procedure in which a small tube is inserted into the artery to help prop it open.
After I was discharged, I felt alone and confused. I’d never known anyone who’d had a heart attack at my age before—even my doctor didn’t give me the support I needed. That was a hard time for me, but I also knew that I had survived this for a reason. So I began volunteering: First I met with women’s health organizations, and then I eventually started a chapter of WomenHeart in Nashville, Tenn., where women who’ve had heart attacks can help each other work through their diagnoses. I felt that there was a lack of resources for women like me, and I want to provide that for others. I even switched health care providers, too, and am much more satisfied with the help I’m getting now. To this day, I tell everyone, “You know your own body. If something’s wrong, listen to it.”
Eve Walker, 44, had a heart attack at age 28
I was 16 years old when my sister—we called her “Sugar”—died all of a sudden at a party. She was 18. There wasn’t a full autopsy, but the early findings pointed to heart disease—something I never learned until I was an adult. My family never talked about the incident. It completely changed my life, but for years, we just quietly went on.
Sixteen years later, I started experiencing heart disease symptoms, too, though I didn’t recognize them at the time. The first thing I noticed was that I couldn’t walk up an incline without feeling short of breath. I couldn’t understand it; I was a size 6 and had been dancing all my life. So I went to the doctor and said, “I think I have adult asthma.” They ran tests—which came back negative—and I left thinking, “I need to get in better shape.”
Not long after that, I started feeling dizzy at work and noticed that my legs felt like tree trunks: so heavy that it was hard to walk. I felt so bad that I went straight to the emergency room from the office. One of the nurses asked me if I was on drugs and gave me an aspirin. A few days (and many aspirins) later, I was so winded that I couldn’t climb a flight stairs at my house. I turned around and thought, “My mom’s place doesn’t have stairs—I’ll go there instead.” Two days later, I had a heart attack.
I distinctly remember it happening—I was watching the first season finale of American Idol at a neighbor’s house, when I suddenly felt a sharp pain in my leg. I thought it was a mosquito bite at first, but then the pain began to travel up the left side of my body. Once it reached my jaw, I realized that I was having a heart attack. My neighbor put me in her car and rushed me to the hospital, which was about two miles away.
One day after I was admitted, the doctors gave me a heart catheterization. They diagnosed me with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which is an enlarged heart muscle that limits the body’s ability to pump blood.
After I was discharged, I went through a depression and developed insomnia. I learned that I have to take medication every day for the rest of my life, and I was scared that I was going to die in my sleep. No one ever tells you that this is your new life, that this is your new normal.
Gradually, though, I adjusted. Prayer helped. I’ve always been a spiritual person, and being around spiritual people helped me realize that I had a purpose and a destiny. I got involved with the American Heart Association and began helping to educate women about heart disease.
Now I use every opportunity I have to inspire others. Every day I wake up, I’m like, “I’m here!” I want to help people navigate their lives and not let a diagnosis stop them. It won’t stop me.