Many women in the U.S. die from heart attacks each year, yet younger women often fail to recognize their risk, a new study suggests.

Researchers interviewed 24 female heart attack survivors who were aged 55 and younger while the women were still hospitalized. Nine out of 10 reported experiencing severe chest pain during the event, but only four of 10 perceived the problem as heart related.

Researcher Judith Lichtman, PhD, of Yale School of Medicine, says that many of the women thought they had indigestion or heartburn.

“Women in this [55 and younger] age group often assume they are not at risk for heart disease,” she says.

Not Just Your Grandmother’s Disease

Heart disease is generally considered an older women’s condition, and to a large extent this is true.

Women aged 55 and younger account for less than 5 percent of hospitalizations for heart-related causes each year in the U.S., Lichtman says. And of the half-million annual heart-related deaths among women in this country, just 16,000 occur in younger women.

Though the number is comparatively small, Lichtman points out that heart disease is still a leading cause of death among younger women.

“The number of young women who die from coronary heart disease each year is roughly comparable to the number of women who die of breast cancer in this age group,” she states in a news release.

Family History Important

Women enrolled in the small pilot study were interviewed to determine their perceived risk for heart disease prior to the event, the symptoms they experienced during their heart attack and their response to these symptoms.

The findings were presented this week at an American Heart Association meeting on cardiovascular disease care in Washington.

Among the major findings:

— Most of the women (88 percent) reported having some degree of chest pain. More than half (58 percent) also experienced pain in the jaw or shoulder; 38 percent experience sweating, 29 percent had nausea, and 29 percent had shortness of breath.

— 88 percent of the women had a parent or sibling with heart disease.

— 71 percent described their overall health as fair or poor, but fewer than half considered themselves at risk for heart disease.

— More than half (54 percent) had a history of high blood pressure, 42 percent had high cholesterol, 21 percent had diabetes, and 30 percent were current smokers, all of which are risk factors for coronary heart disease.

— Most of the women were overweight or obese. Their average body mass index score was 34. A BMI of 30 or above is considered obese.

“It is clear that risk factors like obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure play a big role in these early heart attacks, and family history is extremely important,” says American Heart Association spokesman David Goff, MD.

A professor of public health sciences and internal medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Goff tells WebMD that heart attacks in women under age 40 are extremely uncommon, unless there is a strong family history of heart disease or high cholesterol.

“Certainly one message is that women with these risk factors should never ignore symptoms,” he says. “If they have chest discomfort that lasts more than 10 or 15 minutes, they need to get it checked out. They also need to be aggressive about lowering their risk by keeping their blood pressure and cholesterol under control and stopping smoking.”