Women and Heart Disease

What every woman should know about heart disease - the difference.

Heart Disease is the #1 Killer of Women

Heart disease kills more women each year than ALL cancers, chronic lung disease, pneumonia, diabetes, traffic accidents and AIDS combined.

One in eight women will develop breast cancer over the course of her lifetime, but only one in 40 will die of it. One in every three women will die of coronary artery disease or heart attack. One-third of these womens’ heart attacks will go undetected. More than one out of five women will have some form of cardiovascular disease.

Heart disease claims the lives of more women than men each year, yet women only make up 25% of participants in heart-related research studies. While this is improving, women still remain under-represented in many studies that have set the standard for detection and treatment of cardiovascular disease. Even though valuable information about heart disease has been gathered, the model of detecting cardiovascular disease has been based on and designed for men. Not all the data have been applicable to women.

Did you know?

  • Women are more likely to have a heart attack without chest pain?
  • Women develop heart disease 10 to 15 years later than men, largely because of natural female hormone protection?
  • Unlike men with heart disease, some women, particularly younger women, who have a heart attack, do not have high levels of fatty plaque clogging their arteries?

Compared to Men

  • 38% of women and 25% of men will die within one year of a first recognized heart attack.
  • 35% of women and 18% of men heart attack survivors will have another heart attack within six years.

Increased Risk

  • The age-adjusted rate of heart disease for African American women is 72% higher than for white women, while African-American women ages 55-64 are twice as likely as white women to have a heart attack and 35% more likely to suffer from coronary disease.
  • Women who smoke risk having a heart attack 19 years earlier than a non-smoker. Risk is increased by 700%.
  • Women with diabetes are two to three times more likely to have heart attacks.

So what can women do? Be smart - know your heart.

Know the warning signs of a heart attack. Act immediately - call 911.

Signs that can mean a heart attack is happening:

  • Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
  • Other signs may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
  • Womens’ most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. They are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain.

Know the Warning Signs

Warning signs of heart disease in women are sometimes different from the “classic” warning signs commonly experienced by men. If you answer “yes” to any of the following questions, you may be experiencing symptoms of heart disease and should schedule an appointment with your physician as soon as possible to discuss your heart health.

  • Do you experience shortness of breath frequently, with or without exertion?
  • Do you feel pressure or pain in your chest that comes and goes without exertion?
  • Do you experience bouts of nausea/indigestion-like symptoms that seem unrelated to your diet?
  • Are you chronically fatigued?
  • Are you experiencing back pain between your shoulder blades?

Know Your Risk Factors

Risk factors are those personal lifestyle habits and physical characteristics that contribute to your likelihood of developing heart disease. Some of these factors you can change, some you can control with medication and/or diet, and others you can’t change.

Risk Factors You Can Change

  • Smoking. Smoking has been called the most significant risk factor for heart attacks in women.
  • Obesity. People who are 30% overweight are more likely to develop heart disease even if they have no other risk factors.
  • Lack of Physical Activity. Inactive people are twice as likely to develop heart disease as active people.
  • Waist Circumference. It is a well-known fact that as weight goes up, so does your risk of heart disease. But a new study shows that as the belly goes out, your chance of having problems in the future may skyrocket.
  • Stress/Hostility. Recent research indicates there is an association with anger/stress and an increased risk of heart disease.

Risk Factors You Can Control With the Help of Your Doctor

  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Diabetes
  • Cholesterol/Triglyceride Levels
  • Hormone Status
  • Risk Factors You Cannot Change
  • Increasing age. The older you get, the more likely you are to develop heart disease.
  • Race. African-American women are at higher risk of coronary artery disease than white women.
  • Family History. Your risk of heart disease is greater if close members of your family have had it. When combined with other risk factors, early family history becomes a more significant risk factor.

Bottom line - nobody knows your body better than you. Pay attention to your symptoms and warning signs. Know your risk factors. Inform your physician of anything that you suspect may be related to your heart health. Be an active participant in the care of your heart.

Take care of or eliminate the risk factors you can control, and you will reduce your risk. Talk to your doctor about starting an exercise program, quitting smoking and losing weight. If you are currently taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, never alter your prescribed regimen without seeking advice from your doctor.