Heart disease is the number one cause of death for women. Although a woman’s risk of developing and dying from heart disease can be as high as a man’s, research shows women may be less likely to get a prompt diagnosis or aggressive treatment. One reason may be the difference in heart disease risk factors.
The good news is that common heart diseases like coronary artery disease can be prevented through education and lifestyle changes. Here, cardiologist Melissa Daubert, MD, Director of the Women’s Cardiovascular Health program at Duke, explains what you need to know to keep your heart healthy.
Heart Disease Risk Factors in Women
Many “traditional” heart disease risk factors -- including high blood pressure, diabetes, physical inactivity, obesity, and inflammatory disease such as lupus -- are more common in women and are more likely to cause heart disease than in men. Women are also more likely to experience depression, which is associated with heart disease.
This is true even if you’re relatively young. “Younger women today tend to have more risk factors than younger women of previous generations,” said Daubert.
Of course, there are many risk factors for heart disease that are unique to women, including:
Heart Attack Symptoms in Women
How women experience heart attacks -- including the treatment they receive and how well they fare -- can be different from a man’s experience, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). Many women with heart attacks have symptoms that aren’t thought of as typical.
“Women may have chest pain that’s sharp or stabbing instead of a feeling of pressure,” said Daubert. “They may have jaw, neck, or arm pain. Or they may have nausea, vomiting, sweating, or a sense of impending doom. Those are just as important, but women sometimes don’t associate them with heart attack. Or they’re concerned that if they describe those symptoms, they may be seen as having anxiety.”
If you’re having these types of symptoms, seek medical help immediately. Don’t assume it’s not heart-related or that you’re not at risk because you’re a woman.
What Can You Do to Protect Your Heart?
- Know the facts. Women get heart disease and die from it at least as often as men do.
- Reduce your risk. It’s important to manage your cholesterol, weight, blood pressure, and blood sugar. Be physically active, and quit smoking. (Duke has tobacco cessation programs that can help.) If you have a history of depression, anxiety, pregnancy complications, infertility, PCOS, early-onset periods, or early menopause, make sure your doctor knows this.
- Don’t wait to protect your heart. You’re never too young.
- Learn how heart attack symptoms may be different in women. If you think you might be having a heart attack, get emergency treatment right away.