Heart disease remains the leading cause of death for women in the United States, yet many women report not having conversations about it with their healthcare providers. Women are also more likely to be misdiagnosed when having a heart attack, with symptoms mistaken for panic attacks, stress, or hypochondria.
According to the CDC, 1 in 5 deaths in women are linked to heart disease, but many women don’t recognize a heart attack and stroke warning signs. That’s because heart attack symptoms may present differently in women than men. Women are also more at risk of a silent heart attack, where mild symptoms are easily brushed off.
Risk Factors for Heart Disease in Women
Until recently, most of our understanding of heart disease in women came from studies performed on men. However, we now know that a woman's symptoms can differ from a man's. We also know women are more at risk of death within a year of having a heart attack, and they don’t respond to the same medications.
Some primary risk factors for heart disease in women include:
Blood lipid levels
Estrogen helps protect your heart by increasing HDL (good) cholesterol and decreasing LDL (bad) cholesterol. After menopause, your concentration of LDL increases, but this isn’t the main contributing risk to a heart attack. If you have low HDL and high triglycerides, you are more at risk of developing heart disease that can lead to a heart attack. It’s important to have blood work often performed to ensure your blood lipid levels are within a normal range.
Women with diabetes are more at risk of developing heart disease than men. If you have diabetes, you are more at risk of developing heart disease at a younger age. Other contributing factors that increase your risk are obesity, hypertension, and high cholesterol.
Metabolic syndrome encompasses several risk factors, including large waist size, elevated blood pressure, glucose intolerance, low HDL cholesterol, and high triglycerides. Researchers suggest that this is the single largest contributing factor for heart disease in younger women.
Women who smoke are more at risk of heart disease than men. Women may not find nicotine replacement as effective because the menstrual cycle affects tobacco withdrawal symptoms, so they may relapse after quitting.
Symptoms and Support for Heart Disease in Women
We’ve all heard the classic symptoms of a heart attack. But women may not experience crushing chest pain or pain shooting up the right arm — as little as one in eight women report these symptoms. Many women report feeling extreme fatigue and shortness of breath. Other symptoms may include:
- Cold sweats
- Back pain, jaw, neck pain
Additionally, women are at risk of ‘silent’ heart attacks. These are heart attacks with mild symptoms that may go unnoticed. They lack the intensity of chest pain, shooting pain down the arm or jaw, sudden shortness of breath, or sweating.
Short, often painful symptoms may appear, making you feel overexerted. Other symptoms may feel more like acid reflux or heartburn. Don’t brush them aside—talk to your healthcare provider about them.
It’s Never Too Late to Support Your Heart Health
Here are some simple ways to give a little love to your heart right now.
Get plenty of fruits and vegetables
Adding a few more daily servings of fruits and vegetables will provide heart-supporting vitamins, minerals, and nutrients.
Cut back on added sugar and fat
Aim for less than six teaspoons of added sugar per day. Dietary fat should make up 20-30% of your daily calories.
Limit alcohol use
Alcohol use can lead to long-term heart problems. Additionally, alcohol increases your risk of cancer and liver disease.
Quitting isn’t always easy for women. Find a support group and look for local smoking cessation programs provided through your healthcare network.
Improve sleep quality
Insomnia and lack of sleep contribute to your heart disease and diabetes risk. Avoid caffeine after breakfast or omit it altogether. Create a positive bedtime routine and go to bed at the same time every night.
Daily exercise is one of the best ways to support heart health. Even a quick 15-minute walk will get you heading in the right direction.
Know your history
It’s also important to know your family history. Talk with your doctor about any heart health issues experienced by your family and get regular screening at your annual exams.
In conclusion, understanding the gender-specific aspects of heart disease is vital for women's health. By recognizing unique symptoms, addressing risk factors, and adopting heart-healthy habits, you can take proactive steps towards a healthier, longer life.