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:
- Neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back or 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.
Because 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. Also, because their symptoms often 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. Don’t drive yourself to the emergency room unless you have no other options.
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:
- Diabetes. 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. 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 estrogen 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 both men and women.
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.
- Limit alcohol. If you have more than one drink a day, cut back.
- Follow your treatment plan.Take your medications as prescribed, such as blood pressure medications, blood thinners and aspirin.
- Manage other health conditions. High blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes increase the risk of heart disease.