Health / Expert Advice

How Heart Disease Symptoms Differ in Women and Men

Heart disease is the leading cause of death and disability in American women. Here's what women need to know.

Heart disease is the leading case of death for both men and women. But there’s a large disparity between men and women in cardiovascular disease diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis. Many women aren’t aware that heart disease is the leading cause of death and disability for women in the U.S. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, women between the ages of 45-64 have a one-in-nine risk of developing CVD, and that number climbs to one in three after age 65. Here, we break down the relationship between women and heart disease.

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What is heart disease?

Heart disease can take several forms, but at the most basic level, it’s a disorder in the blood vessels of the heart that can cause a heart attack. Heart attacks are caused by plaque buildup causes a narrowing of the arteries that feed the heart. The narrowed arteries reduce blood flow to the heart, and if a clot forms, blood flow stops and causes a heart attack. Other types of heart disease include heart failure or congestive heart failure, arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm), and heart valve problems.

How is heart disease different in men and women?

Heart disease usually presents ten years later in women than in men. The symptoms can be different for both genders, too. Women don’t always experience the same symptoms of chest pain and pressure or a radiating arm pain. They’re also more likely to experience more subtle symptoms unrelated to chest pain at all. According to the American Heart Association, some of these symptoms include:

Heart disease is usually diagnosed later in women than men, according to
Natalie Hagen, DPT, CCS, cardiovascular and pulmonary physical therapist. This, she says, is usually a result of women not paying attention to their risk factors and health care providers being less aggressive with a diagnosis. Women may mistake their symptoms of long-standing fatigue and weakness with being sleep-deprived or stressed. She adds that the problem is even worse in women of color, with lower rates of diagnosis and higher rates of cardiovascular deaths in that population.

Jeff Roberts, MS, manager of cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation at Evergreen Health Seattle, says that women tend to be the caregivers in their families but aren’t as good at taking care of themselves. He recommends that women become their own advocates by learning the risk factors and warning signs for heart disease. He also adds that women should be insistent with their health care provider if they feel their symptoms aren’t being addressed and treated.

What can women do to help reduce the risk?

Prevention is always better than treatment, and learning how you can take control of your heart health should start early. Here’s how women can reduce their risk of heart disease.

Know your heart health numbers.

If your cholesterol level is high, focus on heart-healthy eating and exercise. In some cases, medication may be necessary. The same goes for reducing high blood pressure. Your physician will be able to work with you to come up with an actionable plan to get these numbers down.

Exercise regularly.

Exercise is one of the key factors in reducing your risk of heart disease. Physical activity helps to manage high blood pressure and reduces the risk of coronary heart disease in women by 30 to 40 percent. Being fit also boosts your HDL (the good cholesterol) and can help keep your weight at a healthy number. The American Heart Association recommends at least 40 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise four times a week for women.

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Reduce stress.

The role of stress in heart disease is especially strong for women. Make stress reduction a focus in your life—it will reduce your risk of heart disease and improve other aspects of your life. Consider incorporating meditation into your life. Even five minutes per day can drastically reduce stress over time.

Get enough sleep.

For many women, child-rearing, stress, and menopause contribute to poor sleep. Recognize that the quality and quantity of your sleep plays a dominant role in your health, and learn ways to improve your sleep. Incorporate relaxation techniques, daily exercise, and a sleep schedule to help with nighttime restlessness.

Get to a healthy weight.

If you’re overweight, make an action plan to lose weight with healthy eating and a regular exercise routine. Eat a heart-healthy diet that includes a variety of vegetables and fruit, whole grains, low-fat protein sources and nuts, and legumes. Limit your intake of saturated and trans fats, as well as sugar-laden foods. Feed your body the highest-quality nutrient-rich foods you can.

Limit alcohol use.

Heavy alcohol consumption increases your risk factors for high blood pressure, stroke, heart failure, and heart disease. The National Institutes of Health recommends that women limit their alcohol intake to no more than seven drinks a week, but even that number can increase your risk of breast cancer.

Manage your blood sugar.

If you have diabetes, become better at managing your blood sugar through diet, exercise, and medication. Women with diabetes run a significantly higher risk of heart disease than women without diabetes. If you have any risk factors for diabetes—high blood pressure; high cholesterol; family history; African, Asian, Latino/Hispanic, or Native American descent; older than 45; overweight—get tested by your healthcare provider. Early detection of diabetes can make a difference in your risk of developing heart disease.

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