Women and Heart Disease

By better understanding the symptoms and risks unique to women and heart disease, women can take steps to protect themselves from developing cardiac health issues and related health problems.

By Desiree Dizadji, MD, cardiologist with Wheaton Franciscan Heart Care in Racine.

February is American Heart Awareness Month, and heart disease continues to be a prevalent chronic health issue for both men and women in the US. It continues to be the top killer of men and women, yet often times, women do not recognize heart health risks or other symptoms of heart disease. 

One challenge is that the heart disease symptoms in women can be very different from symptoms in men. Also, heart disease is not an “older woman’s” problem: according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three women over the age of 20 have some form of cardiovascular disease. In addition, heart disease has become the third most common cause of death among women in their twenties to mid-forties.

As a woman, many of us often think we’re too busy to think about heart disease, but we need to become more aware for our loved ones and for ourselves. By better understanding the symptoms and risks unique to women and heart disease - as well as incorporating a heart-healthy lifestyle - we can take steps to protect ourselves from developing cardiac health issues and related health events.

Risks of heart disease in women
Like men, things like high cholesterol, obesity and high blood pressure increase your risks, but other factors* that may impact women include: 

  • Metabolic syndrome — which is a combination of fat around your abdomen, high blood pressure, high blood sugar and high triglycerides — studies show this has a greater impact on women than on men.
  • Mental stress and depression affect women's hearts more than men's. Studies show depression makes it difficult to maintain a healthy lifestyle and follow recommended treatment.
  • Smoking increases one’s risk for heart disease in women greater than in men.
  • Low levels of estrogen after menopause may impact the development of cardiovascular disease in the smaller blood vessels (small vessel heart disease).

And, again, it is important to recognize heart disease doesn’t only target older adults. Depending on your personal and family history, your lifestyle, women at any age can experience heart disease or events like a heart attack or stroke, and the signs are not what you would normally think.

Understanding the signs
Generally, when man is experiencing a heart attack, it is described as a “crushing” chest pain, or shoulder pain; but women don’t always notice chest pain. Common signs of a heart attack in women include: 

  • Neck, shoulder, or upper back discomfort/pain
  • Fatigue
  • Lack of sleep
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sweating 

Often times, these symptoms are more subtle, and we hear women who initially dismiss them. And a study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) shows that women often experience new or different physical symptoms as long as a month or more before experiencing heart attacks. Signs of heart disease should not be “passed off” as something else. If you - or someone you know - experience these symptoms or think you're having a heart attack, call for emergency medical help immediately.

Steps to prevent heart disease and stroke
The best way to beat heart disease and stroke – for men and women – is to talk to your doctor. See your physician regularly and talk about your personal risk in developing cardiac health issues. Talk about how to minimize your risk factors. If you have a personal or family history of heart disease, get screened. There are a number of screenings available at relatively lower cost that can help you better understand your true risks and steps you can take. And if something is caught early, work with your health care provider on the best treatment options for you.  

* Mayo Clinic, 2013

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