Women's Health

Listen to Your Heart: Women and Heart Disease

BY National Institutes of Health TIMEMarch 29, 2022 PRINT

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women of all ages, races, and shapes and sizes in the United States. But women sometimes experience heart disease differently than men. Healthy eating and physical activity go a long way to preventing heart disease, and keeping it from getting worse if you already have it. Read on to learn more about heart disease, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, how to find out if you’re at risk, how to protect your heart, and more.

Symptoms of a Heart Attack:

  • Women are somewhat less likely than men to experience chest pain. Instead, they are more likely to experience:
    • Dizziness
    • Fatigue
    • Nausea
    • Pressure or tightness in the chest
    • Stomach pain
  • Women are also more likely than men to have no symptoms of coronary heart disease. Because women and their doctors may not recognize coronary heart disease symptoms that are different from men’s, women may not be diagnosed and treated as quickly as men. It is important to seek care right away if you have symptoms of coronary heart disease.
  • Learn what a heart attack feels like.

Followup Treatment for Heart Disease:

  • Doctors are less likely to refer women for diagnostic tests for coronary heart disease.
  • Women are more likely than men to experience delays receiving an initial EKG, are less likely to receive care from a heart specialist during hospitalization, and are less likely to receive certain types of therapy and medicines.
  • Younger women are more likely than men to be misdiagnosed and sent home from the emergency department after cardiac events that occur from undiagnosed and untreated vascular heart disease.​​​​​

Risk Factors for Heart Disease

Risk factors are conditions or habits that make a person more likely to develop a disease. They can also increase the chances that an existing disease will get worse. Many of the risk factors that affect men also affect women. Important risk factors for heart disease are:

Family history of early heart disease is a risk factor that can’t be changed. If your father or brother had a heart attack before age 55, or if your mother or sister had one before age 65, you are more likely to get heart disease yourself.

You may wonder: If I have just one risk factor for heart disease—say, I’m overweight or I have high blood cholesterol—aren’t I more or less “safe”? Unfortunately, no. Each risk factor greatly increases your chance of developing heart disease. But having more than one risk factor is especially serious, because risk factors tend to “gang up” and worsen each other’s effects.

Pregnancy and Heart Disease

Preeclampsia—high blood pressure during pregnancy with signs of damage to another organ system such as the kidneys—is another heart disease risk factor you can’t control. However, if you’ve had the condition, you should take extra care to try to control other heart disease risk factors. This is because preeclampsia raises your risk for heart and blood vessel problems later in life. Aside from preeclampsia, having heart disease or heart problems before pregnancy can raise your risk for pregnancy complications or pregnancy-related death during or after childbirth.

Learn more about pregnancy and your heart.

Menopause and Heart Disease

Heart disease increases with age, including during and after menopause. In middle age women tend to develop more risk factors for heart disease, in part due to increasing body weight and in part because their body’s production of estrogen drops. Women who go through early menopause, especially if they had a hysterectomy, are more likely to develop heart disease as women of the same age who have not yet gone through menopause. Treatment with menopausal hormone therapy immediately after menopause may reduce risk of heart disease but not of stroke, but treatment later in life increases the risk of both heart disease and stroke.

Take Action for Your Heart Health

While some risk factors, such as age and family history of early heart disease, can’t be changed, the truth is, there is something we can do at every stage of life to reduce our risk of heart disease.

Being more physically active and eating a healthy diet are important steps for your heart health. You can make the changes gradually, one at a time. But making them is very important.

Here are some things you can do now for your heart health:

So, the message is clear: Every woman needs to take her heart disease risk seriously—and take action to reduce that risk.

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