A big misconception about heart health is that women are less likely to have a heart attack than men. However, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both males and females in the United States and one out of every three deaths among women are linked to heart disease1. Fortunately, being aware of symptoms, risk factors and preventive measures can help women be more aware of their heart health, make positive changes in their daily lives and encourage visits with their healthcare providers as needed.
Common Types of Heart Disease
Coronary artery disease (CAD)
Coronary artery disease occurs when your arteries begin to build up plaque from fatty deposits and cholesterol in your bloodstream. If there is too much plaque buildup, the blood flow to your heart can be blocked and a heart attack can occur. Women can report having symptoms of CAD while at rest as well as when they are active2. As a result, women may commonly mistake their symptoms as non-heart-related matters.
Peripartum cardiomyopathy (PPCM)
This type of heart disease occurs towards the end of pregnancy or during the first five months of postpartum. PPCM is when the pumping function of the heart muscle becomes weak and the left ventricle can become too big. As a result of the heart muscle weakening, the heart pumps out a lower percentage of blood. Some women have a full recovery with the proper treatment of their medical provider3 However this condition may affect their ability to have future pregnancies.
Female Heart Disease Risk Factors
While some risks factors affect both men and women (high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity), there are some factors that may play a bigger role in the development of heart disease in women including:
- Unhealthy diet
- Stress and depression
- Pregnancy complications
- Low levels of estrogen after menopause
- Family history of early heart disease
- Inflammatory diseases
Heart Attack Symptoms in Women
Heart attack symptoms in women can be vastly different than in men and can be confused with less life-threatening situations. Some of the signs of a heart attack in women include:
- Discomfort in the neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back, chest or abdomen
- Shortness of breath
- Pain in one or both arms
- Nausea or vomiting
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
- Unusual fatigue
A study found that women wait approximately 54 hours before seeking treatment for heart attack symptoms as opposed to men who typically wait for 16 hours4. This delay in seeking medical attention may be the result of women not recognizing the signs of a heart attack.
Heart Disease Treatment for Women
Once women seek medical attention, their testing for heart disease can be different than the testing for men. A coronary angiogram, a diagnostic test, utilizes a dye that helps a cardiologist look for built-up plaque in the arteries. Women have a greater chance of plaque buildup in their smaller arteries, so heart disease can be harder to detect during a cardiac angiogram.
Angioplasties, stenting and coronary bypass surgery are all commonly used to treat patients of both sexes who have had a heart attack. However, women who have coronary bypass surgery are more likely to suffer from complications compared to men5.
Women are less likely to be prescribed statin therapy (medication that lowers cholesterol) than men, but studies have shown benefits to both groups.
Heart Disease Prevention For Women
It is never too late to start adopting habits that benefit heart health and there are things women can do in their daily lives to help prevent heart disease and heart attacks. Aspirin therapy is a preventive treatment option, but it’s not recommended for all patients due to the increased risk of bleeding. Incorporating the following practices into one’s routine can have a positive impact on overall heart health:
- Eating a balanced diet
- Exercising daily
- Managing and coping with stress effectively
- Quitting smoking
- Limiting alcohol consumption
- Managing diabetes and cholesterol
1Common Myths About Heart Disease. (n.d.). In American Heart Association: Go Red for Women. Retrieved from https://www.goredforwomen.org/…,out%20of%20every%20three%20deaths
2Heart disease in women: Understand symptoms and risk factors. (2019, October). In Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/dis…
3Barouch, M.D., L. A. (n.d.). Peripartum Cardiomyopathy. In Johns Hopkins Medicine. Retrieved from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.or…
4The heart attack gender gap (2016, April). In Harvard Health Publishing. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu…
5Heart disease in women: Understand symptoms and risk factors. (2019, October 4). In Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/dis…