A recent CBC News report revealed that women are at a significantly greater risk of dying when they suffer cardiac arrest, than men. But, by becoming aware of the challenges in recognizing cardiac arrest among women, family members and bystanders can increase the chance of survival for women.
One reason for the higher fatalities among woman is that women sometimes have different and less recognizable symptoms of cardiac arrest, and the low recognition of cardiac arrest for woman means they are less likely to get help in time. And, even the women who are, themselves, suffering cardiac arrest often aren’t aware what their symptoms mean. Another reason why women are more likely to die from cardiac arrest is because women less often receive help from bystanders, and bystanders are sometimes reluctant to touch a woman’s chest to deliver cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). A further reason is that the window of time during which the heart can be restarted is shorter for women than for men.
Both cardiac arrest and heart attack can cause the heart to stop pumping, but these events result from different causes and can have somewhat different effects. A heart attack or myocardial infarction is a circulation problem that results from a blocked artery or arteries. By contrast, a cardiac arrest is an electrical problem that occurs when electrical impulses that are required to keep your heart beating become irregular or chaotic, or stop altogether.
On average, only 1 out of 10 persons will survive a cardiac arrest out of hospital. And, due to the shorter window to restart a woman’s heart, the chances of survival for women are only half that of men, according to a study published in the European Heart Journal. And, even when a bystander attempts resuscitation, women are less likely to survive than men.
When a woman falls down or appears to faint, and appears not to be breathing, she may be experiencing a cardiac arrest. Bystanders and family members need to react quickly in such a situation, first by calling 911, and then by applying CPR or an external defibrillator to restart the heart. Simply by completing chest compressions, a bystander can greatly increase a person’s chance of survival.
Defibrillators are increasingly available in public buildings, doctor’s and dentist’s offices, and many other locations. A defibrillator looks for a shockable initial rhythm (SIR), which is an abnormal electrical rhythm associated with cardiac arrest. Time is of the essence and after about 10 minutes, electrical activity has generally stopped and it is too late to restart the heart.
Symptoms that may signify that you are having a cardiac arrest include:
- Sudden collapse
- Losing consciousness
- No breathing or pulse
Other common symptoms that may proceed a cardiac arrest are:
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Shortness of breath
- Extreme fatigue or weakness
A woman experiencing a cardiac arrest may experience the recognized and common symptoms of chest pain or discomfort. However, sometimes women don’t have chest symptoms during a cardiac arrest, but may experience other less recognizable symptoms including the following:
- pain in the arms, back, neck or jaw
- light-headedness or dizziness
- severe nausea and vomiting
- stomach pain
Both victims and bystanders should err on the side of caution and be prepared to take prompt action if these symptoms are observed. And, even if you haven’t collapsed or lost consciousness but are experiencing episodes with some of the above symptoms, including chest discomfort, heart palpitations, unexplained difficulty breathing and light-headedness, you should immediately see your doctor.