Gender Matters: Women’s Heart Health & Disease

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 dis­ease. 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:

  • Dia­betes
  • Smok­ing
  • Inac­tiv­i­ty
  • 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
  • Sweat­ing
  • Light­head­ed­ness or dizziness
  • Unusu­al fatigue
  • Indi­ges­tion

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

Learn more about your risk for heart dis­ease and how you can pre­vent it, or sched­ule an appoint­ment online with one of our car­di­ol­o­gists today.

1Common Myths About Heart Dis­ease. (n.d.). In Amer­i­can Heart Asso­ci­a­tion: Go Red for Women. Retrieved from https://​www​.gored​for​women​.org/…,out%20of%20every%20three%20deaths
2Heart dis­ease in women: Under­stand symp­toms and risk fac­tors. (2019, Octo­ber). In Mayo Clin­ic. Retrieved from https://​www​.may​oclin​ic​.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​.har​vard​.edu…
5Heart dis­ease in women: Under­stand symp­toms and risk fac­tors. (2019, Octo­ber 4). In Mayo Clin­ic. Retrieved from https://​www​.may​oclin​ic​.org/dis…

Health Topics:

  • I provide individualized, evidence based and compassionate care to my patients. I believe it's best to work in partnership with my patients and their family to develop an optimal and informed treatment plan to maintain and improve upon their cardiac health.