Women's Health

Heart Health for Women Differs From Men

Women have unique heart-health issues though the keys to a healthy heart are universal
BY Lisa Roth Collins TIMEFebruary 26, 2022 PRINT

Keeping your heart in tip-top shape is no small task, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. An understanding and appreciation for the wonders of the heart and how it functions can be especially helpful when deciding what steps you need to take to keep it healthy. Discovering effective, natural ways to achieve this goal is part of this process.

Female versus Male Heart

Men and women are different in many ways, and this applies to their hearts as well. For example:

  • The female heart and some of its chambers are smaller by ratio than the male heart.
  • Women’s hearts pump faster than men’s, but the male heart sends out more blood with each pump.
  • Some of the chambers of the female heart are thinner and the veins are narrower than those of males.
  • When under stress, the female pulse rate rises and results in more blood being pumped. Among males, however, stress leads to constricted arteries and a rise in blood pressure.
  • Accumulation of plaque causes heart attacks. In men, the plaque is usually hard and affects all three heart arteries. In women, the plaque is usually softer and blockage occurs in one or two arteries. Softer plaque tends to break away and travels in the bloodstream, leading to a heart attack.
  • Women’s hearts are affected by estrogen. When estrogen levels drop in perimenopause and beyond, the heart-protective power of the hormone declines, and the risk of heart disease climbs.
  • Heart attacks in men typically involve a crushing pain in the chest, but women often feel acute pain in the back or upper abdomen, sweating, shortness of breath, and nausea.
  • Sudden cardiac death is more common in men.
  • Women are more likely to have heart palpitations.
  • Heart attacks typically affect men at a younger age than women.
  • Women usually take longer to recover from a heart attack than men.

Resting Heart Rate and Heart Rate Variability

Perhaps you’ve heard these terms from your doctor. If you have a fitness tracker watch or other devices, you may have heard them as well. But what are they and what do you need to know about them?

Resting heart rate is the number of times your heart beats per minute when you are at rest. This is when your heart is pumping the least amount of blood to provide your body with the oxygen it needs. According to the Women’s Health Initiative, a heart rate ranging from 60 to 100 beats per minute is normal, and women with rates at the lower end of the scale may be more protected against heart attacks.

When the researchers evaluated 129,135 postmenopausal women, they reported that those with a resting heart rate of more than 76 beats per minute were 26 percent more likely to experience a heart attack or die from one when compared with women with a resting heart rate of 62 beats per minute or less.

Heart rate variability is a measure of the variation in time between each heartbeat. This marker is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, which also regulates blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, and other important measures. Heart rate variability is traditionally measured using an electrocardiogram, but today’s wrist and chest monitors allow people to take measurements at home or wherever they are.

Basically, if you are anxious or in a stressful situation, the variation is usually low. If you are in a more relaxed state, the variation between beats may be higher. Therefore, individuals with a high heart rate variability may have better cardiovascular health and be better able to handle stress.

How to Improve Heart Health and Prevent Heart Disease Naturally

Fortunately, there are many lifestyle modifications you can make that can improve heart health and prevent heart disease without the use of medications. Diet and lifestyle changes should be the first line of defense unless you are in an emergency situation.

Cut the Sugar

You might think eating too much sugar is only associated with being overweight, but it also can cause heart disease. In a 15-year study that looked at added sugar and heart disease, individuals who consumed 25 percent or more of their daily calories as sugar were twice as likely to die from heart disease than people who consumed less than 10 percent added sugar.

Adopt a Healthy Eating Plan

The top-rated eating plans for heart health are the Mediterranean diet, Ornish diet (plant-based), and DASH, according to both Forbes and US News and World Report.

Get Sufficient Sleep

Seven to nine hours of sleep every night is best for heart health—and overall health as well. Insufficient sleep increases the risk of coronary artery disease and cardiovascular disease, as noted in one review.

Consider Supplements

One of the best supplements for supporting heart health is aged garlic extract (AGE). Numerous studies have demonstrated the benefit of this supplement for cardiovascular health. AGE can stop and even reverse the accumulation of plaque (and thus slow the progression of atherosclerosis), significantly lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure, and reduce both total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. Other supplements to consider for heart health include coenzyme Q10, magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, and green tea.

Keep Moving

Muscles need to be worked to stay strong and healthy, and the heart is no exception. Aerobic exercise at a moderate pace for 150 minutes a week is the standard, plus several sessions of weight training per week are suggested. If you haven’t exercised in a while, talk to your health care provider first.

Eat in Moderation

Overeating places a lot of stress on your heart as the digestive system steps up its activity. Eating too much can result in irregular, faster heart rhythms, which can result in a heart attack or heart failure.

Manage Stress Daily

The American Heart Association warns that chronic stress can cause heart trouble. Stress can lead to high blood pressure and increases the occurrence of cardiovascular events, as noted in a research article in The Lancet. Practice enjoyable activities that reduce stress, such as meditation, walking, visualization, dancing, yoga, tai chi, deep breathing, or journaling.

Bottom line

Women can keep their heart health in optimal shape by understanding some of the workings of the heart and adopting health-healthy habits. Be sure to get your blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels checked at regular intervals as suggested by the American Heart Association or under the advice of your physician.

Sources
American Heart Association. Heart health screenings.
Berger A. Best diets for heart health of 2022. Forbes
Best heart-healthy diets 2022. US News and World Report
Harvard Health Publishing Staff. Heart rate variability: how it might indicate well-being. Harvard Health 2021 Dec 1
Hsia J et al. Resting heart rate as a low tech predictor of coronary events in women: prospective cohort study. BMJ 2009 Feb 3; 338:b219.
Men vs women: how their hearts differ and what it means. Cardiology Associates of Michigan 2019 Dec 11
Nagai M et al. Sleep duration as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease- a review of the recent literature. Current Cardiology Reviews 2010; 6(1):54-61.
Ried K et al. The effect of Kyolic aged garlic extract on gut microbiota, inflammation, and cardiovascular markers in hypertensives: the GarGIC Trial. Frontiers in Nutrition 2018 Dec 11
Ried K et al. Effect of garlic on serum lipids: an updated meta-analysis. Nutrition Reviews 2013 May; 71(5):282-99.
Tawakol A et al. Relation between resting amygdalar activity and cardiovascular events a longitudinal and cohort study. The Lancet 2017 Jan 11
Yang Q et al. Added sugar intake and cardiovascular diseases mortality among US adults. JAMA Internal Medicine 2014; 174(4):516-24
Zeb I et al. Aged garlic extract and coenzyme Q10 have favorable effect on inflammatory markers and coronary atherosclerosis progression: A randomized clinical trial. J Cardiovascular Disease Research 2012; 3(3):185-190.

Lisa Roth Collins is a registered holistic nutritionist and also the marketing manager at NaturallySavvy.com, which first published this article.
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