Here’s What You Need To Know About Heart Disease in Women
It’s time to get familiar with the symptoms, risk factors and how you can reduce your chances..
© Jessica Lia / Stocksy United via UW Medecine
Heart disease, or cardiovascular disease, is often thought to be a medical condition associated with men, however all women are at risk as well. In fact, heart disease is the leading cause of death among men and women in the U.S. Since some heart disease symptoms in women can differ from those in men, it can be hard to know what to look out for. The good news is knowing the warning signs and risk factors unique to women, eating a heart-healthy diet and adopting lifestyle strategies, including exercise, can help protect us.
The staff at Mayo Clinic, a leading American non-profit academic medical centre, outline the most important things we need to be aware of when it comes to the group of different heart-related conditions.
The most common heart attack symptom in women is the same as in men, some sort of chest pain, pressure or discomfort that lasts more than a few minutes or comes and goes. Yet chest pain is not always acute or even the most noticeable symptom, especially with women, who often describe it as pressure or tightness. Plus, it’s possible to have a heart attack without chest pain.
Women are more likely than men to have heart attack symptoms that aren’t connected to chest pain, including:
Neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back or abdominal discomfort
Shortness of breath
Pain in one or both arms
Nausea or vomiting
Lightheadedness or dizziness
These symptoms may be vague, so they’re not as noticeable as the crushing chest pain often associated with heart attacks. One reason for this is that women tend to have blockages in their main arteries as well as in the smaller ones that supply blood to the heart, a condition called small vessel heart disease or coronary microvascular disease.
Women tend to have symptoms more often when resting, or when asleep and emotional stress can play a role in triggering heart attack indicators in women.
Since women don't always recognize their symptoms as those of a heart attack, they tend to show up in emergency rooms after heart damage has occurred. Additionally, since women’s symptoms regularly differ from men's, women might be diagnosed less often with heart disease than men are.
If you have symptoms of a heart attack or think you're having one, call for emergency medical help immediately. And avoid driving yourself to the emergency room unless that’s the only option you have.
The Risk Factors
Several long-established risk factors for coronary artery disease, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and obesity, affect both sexes. But, other factors can play a bigger role in women suffering from heart disease.
Diabetes. Women with diabetes are more likely to develop heart disease than are men with diabetes. And since diabetes can change the way you feel pain, you're at greater risk of having a silent heart attack, without symptoms.
Mental stress and depression. Stress and depression affect women's hearts more than men's. Depression makes it difficult to sustain a healthy lifestyle and follow recommended treatment.
Smoking. Smoking is a greater risk factor for heart disease in women than it is in men.
Inactivity. A lack of physical activity is a major risk factor for heart disease. Some research has found women to be less active than men.
Menopause. Low levels of oestrogen after menopause pose a significant risk of developing disease in smaller blood vessels.
Pregnancy complications. High blood pressure or diabetes during pregnancy can increase the mother's long-term risk of high blood pressure and diabetes. The conditions also make women more likely to get heart disease.
Family history of early heart disease. This appears to be a greater risk factor in women than in men.
Inflammatory diseases. Rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and others can increase the risk of heart disease in men and women.
Exercise to reduce the risk of heart disease in women
America’s Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity, 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week, or a combination of the two.
That makes the average about 30 minutes a day, five days a week. If that's more than you can handle, start slowly and then start increasing your exercise regimen. Just five minutes a day of exercise has health benefits.
For a bigger health boost, aim for about 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise a day, five days a week. Also do strength training exercises two or more days a week.
And It's OK to break up your workouts into several 10-minute sessions during a day, as you'll still get the same heart-health benefits.
Interval training, when you alternate short bursts of intense activity with intervals of lighter activity, is another way to maintain a healthy weight, improve blood pressure and keep your heart healthy. For example, include short bursts of jogging or fast walking into your regular walks.
You can also add exercise to your daily activities with these tips.
Take the stairs instead of an elevator.
Walk or ride your bike to work or to do errands.
March in place while watching television.
Women of all ages should take heart disease seriously. Women under age 65, especially those with a family history of heart disease, also need to pay close attention to heart disease risk factors. How can one reduce the chances of having a heart disease?
Living a healthy lifestyle can help reduce the risk of heart disease. Try these heart-healthy strategies:
Stop smoking. If you don't smoke, don't start, plus try to avoid exposure to secondhand smoke, which also can damage blood vessels.
Add exercise to your daily routine. In general, everybody should do a bit of exercise, such as walking at a brisk pace, on most days of the week.
Try and stay at a healthy weight. Ask your doctor what weight is best for you. If you're overweight, losing even a couple of kilos can lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of diabetes.
Eat the right foods. Reach out for whole grains, a variety of fruits and vegetables, low-fat or fat-free dairy products and lean meats. On the other hand, the foods to avoid include saturated or trans fats, added sugars and high amounts of salt.
Avoid stress. Stress may cause your arteries to tighten, leading to an increase in your risk of heart disease, particularly coronary microvascular disease.
Stick to your treatment plan. Take your medications, such as blood pressure medications, blood thinners and aspirin as prescribed.
Keep other health conditions. In check. High blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes increase the risk of heart disease.
What's a healthy weight?
What's considered a healthy weight varies from person to person, but having a normal body mass index (BMI) is helpful. BMI is a measurement of body fat calculated from height and weight. A BMI of 25 or higher can be associated with an increased risk of heart disease.
Your waist measurement (waist circumference) also is a useful tool to tell whether or not you're overweight. Women are generally considered overweight if their waist measurement is greater than 35 inches (89 centimeters).
Is the treatment for heart disease different for women?
In general, heart disease treatment in women and in men is similar, and it can include medications, angioplasty and stenting, or coronary bypass surgery.
Women are less likely to be prescribed statin therapy to prevent future heart attacks, however studies show the benefits are similar for both sexes. Angioplasty and stenting, commonly used treatments for heart attack, work for both men and women. But for coronary bypass surgery, women are more likely than men to have complications.
Cardiac rehabilitation can improve health and aid recovery from heart disease. However, women are less likely to be referred for cardiac rehabilitation than men are.
Taking aspirin to prevent heart disease
If you've had a heart attack, your doctor might recommend that you take low-dose aspirin every day to help prevent another. But aspirin can increase the risk for bleeding. Therefore, daily aspirin therapy isn't recommended for women who've never had a heart attack.
Never start taking aspirin for heart disease prevention on your own. Talk with your doctor about your risks and benefits of taking aspirin.