Women and Heart Health

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Heart disease is the primary cause of death in men over the age of 45 and in women over the age of 55. Women are ten times more likely to die from heart disease than from any other disease. Even if a woman does not die from a heart attack, her activities and mobility may be limited. Women of all races and all ages may suffer from heart disease. Greater awareness of how heart disease affects us could save our lives.

How do heart attacks differ in women and men?

The following are the general differences between heart attacks in women and men:

  • The risk factors are different in woman than in men.
  • Diabetes increases the risk of a heart attack even more in women than it does in men.
  • Some tests and treatments for heart attacks may not be as effective in women as in men.
  • The symptoms of a heart attack in women are somewhat unusual compared to those in men.
  • Sometimes women with heart disease are not taken seriously, and do not receive the appropriate tests and treatment.

Too often, heart attacks go unnoticed in women. A woman, her family or her doctor may believe that other insignificant health problems are responsible for her symptoms, or that the symptoms will go away on their own. They may also believe that these are the side effects of a drug. Because of this, women do not always get the healthcare necessary to prevent complications or death from a heart attack.

Older women are at a clear disadvantage compared to men. After menopause, they become more vulnerable, particularly if they smoke and have high cholesterol levels. Many more older women than men live alone and on a low income. They also tend to have less education than men. These factors have a heavy, negative impact on their health.

Self-help options

Until recently, heart disease was considered a man's disease, and research focused primarily on men. Researchers thought that women had the same symptoms as men. However, studies now show that the symptoms of heart attack in women are very different from those in men, and appear at different ages. Also, the warning signs and the effects of a heart attack are often different.

While heart attacks are relatively easy to identify in men (strong pain in the chest and left arm), in women, the symptoms are fairly vague, such as:

  • tightening and ill-defined pain in the chest that may extend into the neck, jaws and shoulders;
  • heartburn;
  • nausea and/or vomiting;
  • difficulty breathing;
  • shortness of breath;
  • general feeling of weakness;
  • paleness or pallor;
  • anxiety; and
  • sweating.

Symptoms may appear and then disappear spontaneously. One woman who is having a heart attack may have a few of these symptoms; another may have all of them at the same time. If you have some of these symptoms or think you are having a heart attack, do not hesitate to call emergency (911) or ask someone to drive you to the hospital immediately.

How can I have a healthy heart?

It is never too early to build a strong and healthy heart. Here are a few habits that will do your heart good:

  • Do not smoke or, if you do smoke, stop. If you are a women age 50 or under and you smoke, your risk of dying from a heart attack is three times greater than that of an ex-smoker. If you are a smoker age 35 or older and are taking an oral contraceptive, your risk is higher still.
  • Be physically active. Find an activity that you like and get moving! The heart is a muscle that needs regular exercise in order to stay healthy. Thirty to sixty minutes of exercise most days is recommended to keep the heart in shape. Walking, going up and down stairs, dancing, stretching, etc. are all activities that can be incorporated into your daily routine and help your heart stay healthy.
  • Have a healthy weight. The risk of a heart attack is three times higher in women who are overweight than in those who have a healthy weight. Every woman has a unique healthy weight, based on her age and height. Talk to your doctor to determine your healthy weight and work out a plan with her for achieving or maintaining it.
  • Eat healthy foods and lower your cholesterol. There are “good” fats and “bad” fats (also known as cholesterol). Fats are an essential part of our diet. However, too much saturated fat (bad fat) can block our arteries and expose us to the risk of heart disease and stroke.
  • Reduce your stress and take time to relax. In some individuals, stress raises their cholesterol level and blood pressure, two factors associated with heart disease. In general, women are more likely than men to experience stress. Many women work, take care of their children, do the housework and sometimes even care for an ailing parent. In addition, women generally earn less than men. Female single parents often feel the strain of being the sole financial and emotional support for their families.
  • If you are going through menopause, take steps to manage it. Menopause is a significant risk factor specific to women. During menopause, your estrogen level decreases. One of the roles of female hormones is to protect the heart and blood vessels. Therefore, your risk of having a heart disease or stroke during or after menopause is four times greater than before menopause. However, there are ways to manage menopause that can help you protect your heart health. Talk to your doctor to determine the options appropriate for you. You may also talk to a naturopathic specialist to find out what natural remedies for managing menopause are available. If you choose this option, tell your doctor about it, since certain natural remedies can cause side effects and interact with some drugs.

Where can I go for more information?

Reviewed June 2006