4 Things to Know About Women and Heart Disease

Get the facts about women and cardiovascular disease and learn ways to reduce risk factors

Get the facts about women and cardiovascular disease.

Think for a moment about diseases that affect women. What comes to mind? Breast cancer? Other types of cancer? While cancer is certainly a concern, the fact is nearly twice as many women die from heart disease than all forms of cancer combined.

Learn how heart disease affects women and what medical experts recommend women do to reduce their chances of getting it.

1. Heart disease is the leading cause of death among women.

According to the American Heart Association:

  • Every minute in the United States, a woman dies from heart disease.
  • Women age 45 and older are more likely than men to die within a year of their first heart attack.
  • The death rate from heart disease has steadily declined among men during the past 25 years, but not among women.

“There is a common misperception that heart disease is more of a problem for men than women,” says Paul Teirstein, MD, director of the new Scripps Prebys Cardiovascular Institute. “As a result, women tend to underestimate their risk and not take heart disease as seriously as they should.”

2. Heart disease affects men and women differently.

According to Dr. Teirsten, a number of factors may influence the differences in heart disease incidence and presentation between women and men. One difference may be hormonal: Estrogen is thought to offer some protection against heart disease. After menopause, women no longer have this protection, which may explain why women tend to get heart disease later in life than men.

A study reported in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association Heart suggests that heart size may be another factor. The right ventricle of the heart, which is responsible for pumping blood to the lungs to collect oxygen, is larger in men than in women. If the right ventricle becomes weakened, the risk of heart problems increases. Since the right ventricle is smaller in women, it may be more susceptible to damage.

3. Women have different heart attack symptoms than men.

“Chest pain during a heart attack is a common symptom for both men and women, but the signs leading up to the attack can be very different,” says Dr. Teirstein. “Women’s symptoms often start up to a month before the heart attack and can be more much more subtle, which is why women may not realize they are in danger.”

Women’s symptoms may include:

  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Pain, pressure, or tightness in the center of the chest
  • Pain that spreads to the upper body, neck or jaw
  • Unusual sweating, nausea or vomiting
  • Sudden dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Problems sleeping

Anyone who is experiencing any of these symptoms should not ignore them. Call 911 right away. The sooner a heart attack is treated, the greater the chance for a successful recovery.

4. Not all fat is bad for your heart.

A heart-healthy diet is one that is low in fat, but it is important to know the difference between “good” and “bad” fats. Saturated fats, such as fats found in beef, lard, dairy and other animal products, are the ones to minimize. These can increase low-density lipoprotein (LDL) blood cholesterol levels, which can clog arteries and increase the risk of heart disease.

Polyunsaturated fats from plants like avocados, olives and walnuts, along with foods high in omega-3 oils, are the “good” fats. They can help increase high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, which helps remove LDL cholesterol from arteries.

Knowing one’s LDL, HDL and total cholesterol levels is important and doctors can recommend how often they should be checked.