Have you heard of a “widowmaker?” It sounds like a B horror movie, but it refers to a critical coronary artery which, if it becomes blocked, can lead to a particularly deadly type of heart attack. These heart attacks often happen in men. But women can also have them — and they may not notice the symptoms at first.

Recently a story made the news of a woman, Sue Palmer, who woke up early one morning, vomited a few times and crawled back into bed thinking she had a 24-hour virus. It was her husband who convinced her she might be having a heart attack and took her to the ER. His quick thinking apparently saved her life.

"If I had gone back to sleep that morning, as I had wanted to, I may not have awakened, and if I did, there probably would have been devastating damage to my heart," Palmer wrote in the Washington Post.

Heart attack is the leading cause of death among women, according to the American Heart Association (AHA), so listen up.

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What is a widow maker?

Widowmaker heart attacks are caused by a blockage in the left anterior descending (LAD) artery. This coronary artery branches off the left coronary artery and supplies blood to the front of the left side of the heart, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. A total blockage of this artery is usually fatal.

Any coronary artery can become blocked by a blood clot or plaque, a buildup of fatty deposits. When this happens, the heart is starved of the oxygen and nutrients carried in the blood. According to the University of Minnesota, the LAD is the artery that gets blocked most often.

Different symptoms for men and women

Although the cause of a widowmaker heart attack is the same for both genders, the symptoms can be extremely different. What’s more, when a woman experiences an LAD heart attack, she may not realize how sick she is. While she may have telltale chest pain or pressure during a heart attack, she also may experience symptoms that seem more like those of a virus coming on.

Related: Quiz: Are You Heart Smart?

These are the signs of a heart attack in women, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

  • Discomfort or pain in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or comes and goes.
  • Discomfort of pain in one or both arms, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath, as if you’ve just run a race, when in fact you’ve barely moved.
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, vomiting or lightheadedness.

According to the Texas Heart Institute, “Women tend to feel a burning sensation in their upper abdomen and may experience lightheadedness, an upset stomach, and sweating.” See a doctor right away if you have any unusual chest pain that lasts five minutes or longer, the institute advises.

Tips for keeping your heart healthy

Whatever your gender, the AHA says there are many ways to lower your risk of a heart attack.

  • Find out your risk. You can start using the AHA's Heart Attack Risk Calculator, but also see your doctor.
  • Quit smoking. That alone will cut your risk of coronary heart disease in half.
  • Get moving. A half hour walk can lower the risk of heart attack.
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet.

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