Why Women's Hearts Are Different

Learn how heart attack symptoms in women are more subtle compared to men

A diverse group of five women with heart conditions support each other in an effort to fight depression.

Learn how heart attack symptoms in women are more subtle compared to men

For many women, getting serious about their heart health may seem like a lot to ask for, especially if they think heart disease is something that mainly affects men. But the reality is that heart disease – also known as coronary heart disease – does not discriminate. It is the leading cause of death among both men and women – claiming one in four lives in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Women are just as vulnerable as men to developing heart disease. Outreach is critical since the symptoms, screenings and preventive care for men and women can significantly differ,” said Kiyon Chung, MD, a cardiologist at Scripps Mercy Hospital San Diego.

Women, like men, can experience chest pain and discomfort, which are the most common symptoms of a heart attack. But women are more likely to experience other common symptoms, such as shortness of breath, persistent indigestion, unusual fatigue, nausea and excessive sweating with minimal physical exertion. Some of these symptoms may be present for weeks to months before a heart attack.

Because women’s symptoms can be so easily mistaken for common complaints, such as an upset stomach or lack of sleep, it is especially important for women to know their risk factors and have frequent, thorough screening exams for heart disease.

Who’s most at risk for heart disease?

While awareness of heart disease among women has increased, much work needs to be done to educate women about the risk factors for heart disease. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute:

  • Approximately 80 percent of women ages 40 to 60 have one or more risk factors for heart disease.
  • Heart disease can begin early; yet 17 percent of US women ages 18 and older are current smokers.
  • Among women 20 and older, 64 percent are overweight; 27 percent have hypertension and 45 percent have high cholesterol.
  • African-American and Hispanic women have higher rates of some risk factors for heart disease and are disproportionately affected by the disease compared to white women.

Other types of heart disease that strike women

Certain types of heart disease, such as coronary microvascular disease (MVD) and broken heart syndrome, affect more women than men.

Coronary MVD causes damage or disease in the walls of the heart’s tiny arteries. Researchers suspect that falling estrogen levels during menopause may be partially to blame for MVD. Estrogen helps to protect the heart, which is why women tend to develop heart disease about 10 years later in life than men.

Broken heart syndrome, also called stress-induced cardiomyopathy or Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, may be caused by extreme emotional stress, such as the loss of a loved one. The results can be heart failure.

While the symptoms are often similar to those of a heart attack, including chest pain and shortness of breath, there is no sign of blockages in the arteries. Fortunately the heart failure is usually short-term, and with proper medical therapy most patients make a full recovery.

Tips for healthy life

Regular checkups to modify one’s risk factors, and maintaining a heart-smart lifestyle can go a long way in keeping your heart healthy.

Along with increasing cardiovascular fitness and maintaining a healthy weight, women can significantly help reduce their risk of developing coronary heart disease by following these steps:

  • Keeping your cholesterol levels in check
  • Controlling your blood pressure
  • Avoiding tobacco
  • Managing stress
  • Eating a healthy diet that is low in fat, especially animal fat