Men and Women Experience Heart Attacks Differently

Men and Women Experience Heart Attacks Differently

A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart muscle becomes blocked, restricting oxygen. Depending on how long blood supply is cut off, heart damage can occur, from mild to severe, and can sometimes be fatal.

Did you know that men and women experience heart attacks in unique ways? These stories of two heart attack survivors demonstrate just how different the experience can be and why paying attention to what our bodies are telling us is so important.

Marjorie Sanders

—“Don’t ignore subtle signs.”

This 73-year-old grandmother of four walks everywhere and doesn’t smoke. Although she had developed slightly high blood pressure a few years ago, she considered herself to be the picture of health until the fall of 2018.

Sanders rolled over in bed one night and noticed “a bit of a pop” on the left side of her chest. But it was over in a flash, she had no pain, and by morning she didn’t give it another thought. A few weeks later, she started feeling unwell in a subtle way: she was unusually tired on her regular walks, but upon resting at home she would feel better.

Then her teeth and jaw started to hurt. A Google search led her to believe it was probably reflux, so she carried on with acetaminophen. The discomfort persisted. She went to her doctor, who noticed nothing wrong.

That aching jaw should have been a red flag: it’s a telltale sign of heart attack in women. About a week later, still taking pain relievers, Sanders went to bed, only to experience strange sensations in her chest.

“There was never any pain,” Sanders recalls. “It was like a rumble or spasms. I would sit up and it would go away. Lying down seemed to make it worse. It wasn’t painful, but it was something you couldn’t ignore or put up with. I said to my husband, ‘I think we should go to the hospital.’”

There, she learned she was having a heart attack. An ultrasound the next day showed that one of her arteries was 95 percent blocked. “I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “We were stunned. On TV, you see people clenching their chest. My arms weren’t sore, and I had no nausea or vomiting. I don’t have any history of it in my family.”

Surgeons placed a stent in her heart, and Sanders recovered fully. She takes blood pressure medication, checks in with her cardiologist regularly, and is back to feeling great.

Looking back on her experience now, Sanders says it’s important to deal with high blood pressure, especially understanding possible reasons behind it. Women know their bodies; Sanders encourages them to pay attention to anything that just doesn’t feel right. Jaw pain is an often-overlooked symptom in females.

“My symptoms were vague; I felt just not well,” she says. “It wasn’t grand and dramatic like you see on TV. Don’t ignore subtle signs.”

John McLellan

—“Stress can affect anybody.”

In May 2017, John McLellan ran a half marathon. A month later, at age 41, he had a heart attack.

After pulling an all-nighter to get ready to travel to Vancouver to sell products at a farmers’ market there, the self-employed husband and dad spent the day working, then returned to Squamish and went straight to a family gathering. Later that evening, he was loading heavy items into his car when he felt a wave of nausea.

“I was overheating, just instantly sweating,” McLellan says. “I was kind of dizzy and remember thinking ‘I don’t feel so good.’ The entire night, it felt like somebody had been sitting on my chest.”

He went to his doctor in the morning. She sent him straight to hospital. Tests revealed a heart attack but no obvious physiological cause. Doctors surmised that McLellan’s heart attack was stress induced.

“Stress is the number-one killer,” McLellan says. “It was a good slap in the face.”

McLellan, who now takes a daily aspirin (as a blood thinner), is keeping up with regular physical activity and healthy eating. Since his health scare, however, he sees things in a different light. His health and his family are the most important things in his life, and he doesn’t let work get to him.

“I’d rather be poor and happy than wealthy and dead,” he says. “Don’t think you’re ever too young or too invincible to have a heart attack. Stress can affect anybody.”

Warning signs

Chest pain is the most common sign of a heart attack for both men and women, but subtle signs are also telling. Here are some other signs people may experience.


  • sore jaw
  • back pain
  • fatigue
  • shortness of breath
  • nausea
  • indigestion


  • sensation of squeezing, pressure, heaviness, fullness, or burning in the chest
  • pain or discomfort in the upper body, including arms, left shoulder, and stomach
  • rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • shortness of breath
  • light-headedness
  • cold sweat

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BetsyHealth Note: This article is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, prevent or cure any disease.

Article copyright 2021 by Alive Publishing Group. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Photo by Tristan Le from Pexels
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