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 — which refers to several types of heart conditions — does not discriminate. It is the leading cause of death for both men and women. Heart disease is responsible for one in five female deaths 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,” says 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.
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 American Heart Association:
- One in three women is living with some form of cardiovascular disease
- Heart disease and stroke cause one in three deaths among women each year
- 90% of women have one or more risk factors for developing heart disease
- 56% of women identified heart disease as the leading cause of death
- Compared with older women, younger women were less likely to discuss heart disease risk with their doctors
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.
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