Skip to Main Content

Heart Health, Explained

Heart Attack: Young Women Fare Worse than Young Men After Heart Attack

Women age 55 or younger may fare worse than their male counterparts after having a heart attack, according to new research presented at the American Heart Association’s Quality of Care and Outcomes Research Scientific Sessions and publicized June 2, 2014 in Science Daily. “Our results can be important in developing treatments specifically designed to improve young women’s recovery after a heart attack,” said Rachel P. Dreyer, Ph.D., the study’s first author and a post-doctoral research associate in cardiovascular medicine at Yale School of Medicine.

Young Women and Heart Attack Q&A

Q: How did the researchers conduct this study, and what did they find?

A: This research is from an important study from Yale University, the VIRGO study, in which more than 3,500 women and men from various hospitals in the United States and Spain were followed after being hospitalized with a heart attack. About two-thirds of the participants were women. The researchers interviewed participants to collect information about symptoms, functioning, quality of life, and medical care. The interviews were repeated one year later, and the researchers noted differences in outcomes between men and women. According to the author’s analysis, women were more likely to have impaired physical and mental functioning, worsened quality of life, and recurrent chest pain and other physical limitations compared to men.

Q: What factors might contribute to women’s poorer outcomes after heart attack?

A: Because the results of the study had yet to be formally published, many of the details regarding the participants’ risk factors, specific cardiac status and findings, and psychosocial status are not yet known. One suggestion from other studies is that women with an acute cardiac issue tend to present for medical care later than men, either because the symptoms are less “typical,” or there are other barriers to healthcare access. Urgent access to cardiac care is critical during a heart attack, since earlier and more aggressive therapy is known to minimize complications, improve survival, and improve physical and mental well-being on a long-term basis. It is also possible that women have a different distribution of risk factors, such as high blood pressure, cholesterol levels, diabetes, obesity, tobacco use and activity levels, which predispose individuals to a heart event. Finally, some past studies have suggested that women with suspected heart attack undergo less aggressive therapy than men, which could affect outcomes.

Q: What can healthcare and rehabilitation providers do to improve outcomes?

A: Healthcare providers, from emergency-response personnel to hospital-based physicians and staff, need to recognize the wide spectrum of symptoms that can indicate a heart attack, as well as the role that early and aggressive intervention can play in minimizing complications and improving long-term outcomes. There is also evidence that recognizing psychological issues and concerns immediately after a heart attack, and intervening with appropriate support can improve both physical and psychological outcomes long term.

Q: What are the best ways for a young woman to assess and reduce the risks for cardiovascular disease and heart attack?

A: Prevention, risk factor management and recognizing symptoms of a heart attack are the key strategies to minimizing the impact of cardiovascular disease. The foundations of cardiac prevention apply to both women and men, and include regular evaluation with your primary care physician and knowing your numbers: for blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose. In addition, an active lifestyle with regular exercise, weight maintenance, and a diet that minimizes saturated fat and processed carbohydrates, and emphasizes lean meat and fish, whole grains, and natural sources of carbohydrates can help prevent cardiac events. Many excellent resources can be found online from the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology.


Answers to your questions on timely topics in cardiac care to help make sense of research reports in the media. The series includes questions on your heart and the effect of medications, exercise, diet, and hormones.

Team Specialist

Kanny Grewal, MD, FACC System Chief, Heart & Vascular Imaging, OhioHealth Healthcare System, Columbus, Ohio

Q&A Editor

Teresa Caulin-Glaser, MD, FACC, FAACVPR System Vice President, Heart & Vascular Services OhioHealth Healthcare System, Columbus, Ohio

Heart Health Explained is a collaboration of Women’s Health Research at Yale and the OhioHealth Healthcare System, a nationally recognized not-for-profit organization with providers across 46 counties, offering a holistic approach to prevention, treatment and rehabilitation of heart disease. OhioHealth is staffed by physicians, psychologists, nutritionists and nurses who answer the questions of the moment on heart and vascular health.

The information provided here may help you make more informed choices. However, it is not a substitute for an individualized medical opinion or diagnosis, and everyone should always consult with their personal physicians to make decisions about their condition or treatment.