Understand the symptoms and risk
Heart Disease in Women, all women face the threat of heart disease. Knowing the symptoms and risks unique to women, as well as eating a heart-healthy diet and exercising, can help protect you.
Heart disease is often thought to be more of a problem for men. However, it’s the most common cause of death for both women and men in the United States. Because some heart disease symptoms in women can differ from those in men, women often don’t know what to look for.
Fortunately, by learning their unique heart disease symptoms, women can begin to reduce their risks.
Heart attack symptoms for women
The most common heart attack symptom in women is the same as in men – some type of chest pain, pressure or discomfort that lasts more than a few minutes or comes and goes. But chest pain is not always severe or even the most noticeable symptom, particularly in women. Women often describe it as pressure or tightness. And, it’s possible to have a heart attack without chest pain.
Women are more likely than men to have heart attack symptoms unrelated to chest pain, such as:
- Abdominal discomfort
- Shortness of breath
- Pain in one or both arms
- Nausea or vomiting
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
- Unusual fatigue
These symptoms may be vague and not as noticeable as the crushing chest pain often associated with heart attacks. This might be because women tend to have blockages not only in their main arteries but also 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 even when asleep than they do in men. Emotional stress can play a role in triggering heart attack symptoms in women.
Heart disease risk factors for women
Several traditional risk factors for coronary artery disease such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and obesity affect both women and men. But other factors can play a bigger role in the development of heart disease in women.
Heart disease risk factors for women include:
- Women with diabetes are more likely to develop heart disease than are men with diabetes. Also, because 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 maintain a healthy lifestyle and follow recommended treatment.
- Smoking is a greater risk factor for heart disease in women than it is in men.
- A lack of physical activity is a major risk factor for heart disease. Some research has found women to be less active than men.
- Low levels of estrogen after menopause pose a significant risk of developing the 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.
What can women do to reduce their risk of heart disease?
Living a healthy lifestyle can help reduce the risk of heart disease. Try these heart-healthy strategies:
- Quit smoking. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. Try to avoid exposure to secondhand smoke, which also can damage blood vessels.
- Exercise regularly. In general, everybody should do moderate exercise, such as walking at a brisk pace, on most days of the week.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Ask your doctor what weight is best for you. If you’re overweight, losing even a few pounds can lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of diabetes.
- Eat a healthy diet. Opt for whole grains, a variety of fruits and vegetables, low-fat or fat-free dairy products, and lean meats. Avoid saturated or trans fats, added sugars, and high amounts of salt.
- Manage your stress. Stress can cause your arteries to tighten, which can increase your risk of heart disease, particularly coronary microvascular disease.
Exercise to reduce the risk of heart disease in women
The Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity, 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week, or a combination of the two.
That’s about 30 minutes a day, five days a week. If that’s more than you can do, start slowly and build up. Even 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.
Diagnosis of heart disease in women
To diagnose heart disease, a doctor will first ask about your personal and family medical history. They will then ask you about your symptoms, when they started, and how bad they were. They also ask you about your lifestyle, like if you smoke or exercise.
Blood tests can help your doctor determine your risk for heart disease. The most common is the lipid profile, which measures cholesterol and triglycerides.
Depending on your symptoms and history, other blood tests may be done, including tests done by your doctor:
- Levels of inflammation
- Sodium and potassium levels.
- Number of blood cells
- Kidney function
- Liver function
- Thyroid function
- Electrocardiogram (EKG) to measure electrical activity in the heart. This will help the doctor see evidence of your heart rate and a heart attack.
- Echocardiogram, which is an ultrasound of the heart and looks at the heart’s structure, function, and function of the heart valves.
- A stress test to see how well your heart is working under physical stress. During this test, you will exercise while using electrical signals from your heart and devices to measure your blood pressure. You can regulate whether or not there are blockages that restrict blood flow to your heart while you exercise
- Coronary CTA, a specialized CT scan, looks at the blood vessels around the heart to see if there are any obstructions.
If these tests are not complete, you may need more aggression tests to diagnose heart disease. In addition to:
- Cardiac catheterization, which shows if your arteries are blocked and how well your heart is working.
- Implantable Loop Recorder, a subcutaneous arrhythmia monitor that helps identify the cause of the arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat).
Is the treatment for heart disease in women different than in men?
In general, heart disease treatment in women and men is similar. 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 than are men. However, studies show the benefits are similar in both groups. 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.
Taking aspirin to prevent heart disease in women
If you’ve had a heart attack, your doctor might recommend that you take a low-dose aspirin every day to help prevent another. But aspirin can increase the risk of 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.