Little known heart attack condition striking ‘fit and healthy’ women

Did you know heart attacks can happen to young people, as well as those who are older?

In fact, experts are warning that women as young as 22 are being impacted by a rare and little known heart condition called Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD).

Women wears a white shirt and black pants. She sits on a bed and is clutching her chest with a pained expression on her face.
A rare heart condition called SCAD is affecting women as young as 22. Source: Getty Images

So, what is SCAD?

Typically, a heart attack is caused when a clot blocks an artery. SCAD occurs when a tear forms in a blood vessel in the heart, slowing or blocking blood flow to the heart.

And, according to experts at the Mayo Clinic, this can cause either a heart attack, abnormalities in heart rhythm or even sudden death.

Certain risk factors that may increase someone's chances of experiencing SCAD include: severe emotional stress, cocaine use, intense physical exertion, fibromuscular dysplasia, and chronic inflammation.

Woman with head in hands, standing in front of a blackboard covered in squiggly lines representing mental overwhelm and stress.
Severe emotional stress is thought to increase someone's risk of developing SCAD. Source: Getty Images

Who is affected by SCAD?

SCAD often affects pregnant women, new mothers and otherwise healthy athletes, and according to the Victor Chang Cardiac research institute, it's thought to be responsible for 25 per cent of heart attacks in women under the age of 50.


SCAD is reported to be most common in women between the ages of 30 and 60, however experts have seen it in fit and healthy women as young as 22.

And, notably, most SCAD patients are generally quite healthy, without the usual risk factors for a heart attack such as smoking, diabetes, or being overweight.

One 33-year-old woman experiencing SCAD told the New York Post it felt as though she had an “elephant on her chest” and could barely walk. However, she didn’t think she needed to worry because she was “generally fit and healthy”.

What are the symptoms of SCAD?

Mayo’s SCAD research Program director, Sharonne N. Hayes also told the publication that “like a regular heart attack, patients may experience a range of symptoms like chest pressure, pain and shortness of breath, but what’s different is who’s having it."

“We don’t expect a 22-year-old to have heart attack symptoms," she added.

Doctor with a stethoscope held up to an image of a heart checking heart health.
“We don’t expect a 22-year-old to have heart attack symptoms.” Source: Getty Images

These assumptions have unfortunately led to some women being misdiagnosed or dismissed.

Other signs to pay attention to are pressure or tightness in the neck, jaw or back, abdominal pain, sweating and light headedness.

How is SCAD diagnosed?

According to the Mayo Clinic, SCAD is diagnosed using either a coronary angiogram (an X-ray test using dye and a camera to take pictures of the blood flow through your coronary arteries), or a range of other scans and imaging tests.

Experts are encouraging anyone with symptoms, regardless of their age, to speak up and ask for help.

Dr Hayes encourages patients to “say what you really feel, and if you’re about to be dismissed without much of a workup, that’s when you refuse to leave.”

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