Women and Heart Disease
When women think about the health problems that are most likely to affect them, heart disease may not come to mind. Heart disease is often considered something that primarily affects men. The truth, however, is that heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. And heart disease kills more American women than all forms of cancer combined. Clearly, heart disease should be an essential part of every conversation about women’s health.
February is American Heart Month, making it a good time for women to learn about heart disease, what factors affect their individual risk, and what they can do to help reduce their risk for developing heart disease.
What Is Heart Disease?
Heart disease refers to multiple disorders of the heart. Heart disease is a type of cardiovascular disease, which includes all diseases of the heart or blood vessels, such as atherosclerosis and stroke.
The most common type of heart disease is coronary heart disease (also known as coronary artery disease). Coronary heart disease develops when plaque (deposits of fat, cholesterol, and other substances) builds up on the walls of coronary arteries, causing them to narrow or harden. The narrowed arteries decrease blood flow to the heart, which can cause chest pain (angina). If plaque ruptures, a blood clot can form around it and drastically reduce or block blood flow in a coronary artery, resulting in a heart attack.
reveals how plaque buildup in arteries can lead to a heart attack.
How Is Heart Disease Different in Women?
- Some heart disease risk factors, including diabetes and smoking, put women at greater risk for heart disease than men.
- Women generally develop coronary heart disease 10 years later than men because of the protective effects of estrogen. After menopause, a woman’s risk of coronary heart disease increases.
- Women tend to have different heart disease symptoms than men, which can mean that symptoms go unrecognized or are misdiagnosed.
- Women are less likely to survive a first heart attack and are more likely than men to die within a year after having a heart attack.
What Are Some Key Risk Factors for Heart Disease?
Although some risk factors for heart disease are outside your control, many risk factors for heart disease can be controlled or improved with lifestyle changes and medications.
- Lifestyle factors you can control include not smoking, eating a healthy diet, limiting alcohol intake, being physically active, and lowering stress. If you smoke, get help to quit. Work with your healthcare professional to set healthy goals and maintain healthy lifestyle patterns.
- Health conditions you can work to improve include high blood pressure, unhealthy blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels, diabetes, and overweight and obesity. If you have any of these health conditions, work with your healthcare professional to control and improve them. Lifestyle changes, such eating a healthy diet and being physically active, and medications can improve these conditions.
- Risk factors beyond your control include your family history, age, and whether you have gone through menopause. For both men and women, the risk of coronary heart disease rises with age. Plaque buildup can start in childhood and progress as you get older. After they go through menopause, however, women lose the protective effects of estrogen.
helps users gauge their risk for heart disease.
What Other Factors Can Affect a Woman’s Heart Disease Risk?
Women who smoke should not use hormonal birth control, including birth control pills. Smoking and using hormonal birth control puts a woman at high risk for heart disease, especially after age 35. Talk with your healthcare professional before using hormonal birth control.
Certain conditions during pregnancy, such as gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, and preeclampsia, can increase your risk of heart disease later in life. Discuss whether you have had these conditions and how to improve your controllable risk factors with your healthcare professional.
Menopause hormone therapy, which may be prescribed to relieve some of the symptoms of menopause, can increase the risk of heart disease. It is recommended that women who use menopause hormone therapy for menopausal symptoms use the lowest dose possible for the shortest time needed. Discuss the risks and benefits of menopause hormone therapy with your healthcare professional.
handouts to provide a comprehensive presentation about heart health.
Warning Signs of a Heart Attack
Heart attack symptoms in women may be different from those experienced by men. In fact, many women who have a heart attack do not know it. For many women, the first heart attack may be fatal because warning signs go unrecognized.
Heart attack symptoms in women include:
- Pain, pressure, or discomfort in the chest
- Discomfort in the jaw, neck, shoulder, upper back, or abdomen
- Pain in one or both arms
- Shortness of breath
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Unusual fatigue or tiredness
- Nausea or vomiting
- Breaking out in a cold sweat
If you experience symptoms of a heart attack or believe you might be having a heart attack, immediately call for emergency help.
Talk to Your Healthcare Professional
Discuss your individual risk factors for heart disease with your healthcare professional. Together, you can establish a heart-healthy plan, which may include lifestyle changes and medications, to reduce your risk.
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