Do Women Get Heart Disease?
Women and Heart Disease
Heart disease is an equal opportunity health problem. While it's commonly assumed that more men than women experience heart attacks and other heart problems, the truth is that heart disease affects nearly as many women as men.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death among women1. It's responsible for one-third of all deaths annually. Fortunately, there are steps you can take and things you can do to lower your risk of heart disease and protect your overall health.
Heart Disease Risk in Women
Some risk factors for heart disease are the same in men and women. Obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol levels are three factors that increase heart disease risk in both sexes.
Some risk factors seem to impact women more than men. For example, smoking increases the risk of a heart attack in both men and women smokers. But the risk for a heart attack appears to be higher in women who smoke2.
Similarly, diabetes increases a woman's risk for a heart attack more than it does a man's. Diabetes can also change the way women feel pain, making it more likely for them to experience a silent heart attack.
Depression and high stress levels also appear to have a great impact on women's heart health than on men's. Women are more likely to die from "broken heart syndrome," or heart failure connected to extreme stress than men3.
Women can also experience certain life events that contribute to an elevated risk for heart disease.
Heart Disease and Pregnancy
Pregnancy is sometimes called "nature's stress test" because it puts additional demands on a woman's heart and blood vessels4. Weight and hormone changes during pregnancy affect the heart. Additionally, the body has a higher blood volume and cardiac output when a woman is pregnant.
Many women have healthy pregnancies, even with the increased demands on their hearts. In some cases, though, conditions such as high blood pressure develop, even in women who had normal blood pressure levels before becoming pregnant.
Seeing your physician for regular prenatal care means you can detect and treat any heart-related issues that arise during pregnancy.
Heart Disease and Menopause
Heart disease isn't a side effect of menopause, but for some women, going through menopause can increase heart disease risk factors. For example, the drop in estrogen that occurs with menopause can alter the levels of lipids in a woman's blood. Levels of HDL (good) cholesterol can drop while LDL levels increase.
Eating a heart-healthy diet and getting 150 minutes of activity a week can help protect your heart during menopause.
Signs of Heart Disease in Women
Heart disease in women can be silent, meaning it doesn't cause any symptoms. Often, a woman might not know she has heart disease until she experiences an arrhythmia, heart attack, or heart failure.
When a woman does have symptoms of heart disease, they are often different from what men experience. Symptoms can include pain in the back, upper abdomen, neck, or throat. Some women have vomiting and nausea or feel fatigued.
In some cases, a woman might experience symptoms of a heart attack up to a month before it occurs. Those symptoms can include2:
● A heavy feeling in the upper arm
● Trouble sleeping
● Racing heart
● Unusual fatigue
How to Lower Your Heart Disease Risk
In many cases, making changes to your lifestyle and diet can dramatically reduce your heart disease risk and your risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke1. Some of the changes you can make include:
● Quitting smoking and limiting or avoiding alcohol
● Eating a diet full of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains
● Reducing your weight if you're overweight or obese
● Knowing your numbers, including your cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and blood sugar
● Getting at least 30 to 60 minutes of physical activity a day
● Lowering stress levels and getting treatment for depression
If you're concerned about your heart health, talk to your family physician. They can run tests and help you put together a heart-healthy lifestyle plan. They can also recommend medication and other treatments, as needed.
1. The Facts about Women and Heart Disease, Go Red for Women, https://www.goredforwomen.org/en/about-heart-disease-in-women/facts
2. Gender Matters: Heart Disease Risk in Women, Harvard Health Publishing, https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/gender-matters-heart-disease-risk-in-women
3. Heart Disease in Women, MedLinePlus, https://medlineplus.gov/heartdiseaseinwomen.html
4. Common Heart Conditions and Pregnancy, Go Red for Women, https://www.goredforwomen.org/en/know-your-risk/pregnancy-and-maternal-health/pregnancy-and-common-heart-conditions