What It's Like to Have a Heart Attack in Your 20s or 30s

Heart attacks can strike at any age—and they're twice as likely to be fatal for young women than men.

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 does not only affect men. It's also the leading cause of death among women, responsible for about one in five deaths in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

And while it's true that the risk of having a heart attack increases as you age, young women are also not immune to them. Per the CDC, heart attacks can happen at any age, typically due to high blood pressure and cholesterol, obesity, smoking, diabetes, and unhealthy lifestyle choices.

What's more, women often ignore early warning signs. In one study published in 2015 in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, researchers interviewed women aged 30 to 55 who survived heart attacks. They discovered that many women brushed off the pain, dizziness, and other symptoms.

Likewise, another study published in 2013 in JAMA Internal Medicine revealed that many young women who survived heart attacks never experienced any chest pain.

Women are more likely than men to experience vague symptoms, like nausea or pain down the arms. So, women must know—and not ignore—these heart attack symptoms. And remember, women can suffer from heart attacks even in their 20s and 30s. 

The following three women know from experience. Here are their stories.

Kara Burns, 41, Had a Heart Attack at Age 39

As a former cardiology nurse, I knew all about heart attack symptoms. But that was the farthest thing from my mind when I was hit with sudden chest pain one morning in 2013.

It was a typical Saturday. I was sitting on the 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 radiated out to my back. I knew something was wrong—and I needed to get to the hospital—but I didn't think I had a heart attack.

I was 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 rearranged the furniture in my living room while the EMTs put me on a gurney. They 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.

At the hospital, they took me into the trauma room right away. I was an emotional wreck, so they kept me pretty sedated. I only remember bits and pieces of the next 24 hours. I remember waking up and seeing my mom, waking up and asking where the baby was.

I was in the hospital for five days and spent some time researching what had happened to me. 

The healthcare providers said, "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. And I couldn't do things I once did anymore, like carry my baby up the stairs. I kept thinking, "What did I do to cause this?" 

But time heals all things. I started going to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and I 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, 50, Had a Heart Attack at Age 39

Many things were 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. I was working 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 much of that pressure.

A week before the party, I started getting bad headaches. I self-medicated with Excedrin, and I brushed it off as a migraine. I figured I was 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. 

The tests showed that I had a heart attack when I got there. The healthcare providers 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 healthcare provider didn't give me the support I needed. That was a hard time for me, but I also knew I had survived this for a reason. 

So I began volunteering. I met with women's health organizations. Then, I eventually started a chapter of WomenHeart-Nashville Music City in Nashville, Tenn. That's where women who've had heart attacks can help each other work through their diagnoses. 

I felt there was a lack of resources for others like me, and I want to give that to them. I even switched healthcare 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 12 when my sister—we called her Sugar—suddenly died at a party.

She was 16. 

There wasn't a complete 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 quietly continued.

Sixteen years later, I started experiencing heart disease symptoms, too, though I didn't recognize them at the time. I first noticed that I couldn't walk up an incline without feeling short of breath. I couldn't understand it. I was a healthy weight and exercised regularly, having been dancing all my life. 

So, I went to my healthcare provider and said, "I think I have adult asthma." 

So, they ran tests—which came back negative—and I left thinking, "I need to get in better shape." And soon after, I started feeling dizzy at work and noticed that my legs felt like tree trunks. They felt 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 of 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 I was having a heart attack. My neighbor put me in her car and rushed me to the hospital, about two miles away.

The healthcare providers gave me a heart catheterization one day after my admission. They diagnosed me with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, 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 must take medication every day for the rest of my life, and I was scared that I would 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 others who felt the same helped me realize that I had a purpose and a destiny. 

I got involved with the American Heart Association (AHA) and began helping to educate women about heart disease. 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.

Summary

According to the CDC, only about half of women in the United States know the symptoms of a heart attack, which include:

  • Chest pain
  • Pain in the neck, jaw, throat, upper abdomen or back
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath

There are also steps that you can take to reduce your risk of having a heart attack, like:

  • Tracking your blood pressure for any abnormalities
  • Adequately managing any health conditions (like obesity and diabetes) that may put you at-risk for heart disease
  • Quitting smoking
  • Eating healthily and controlling your cholesterol
  • Keeping checks on your stress levels
  • Not overindulging on alcohol

And if you experience any symptoms of a heart attack, it's important to immediately call 911. The signs of a heart attack can be easy to ignore, especially if they're subtle.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles