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What Women Need to Know About Heart Disease

Women and Heart DiseaseHeart disease kills more American women every year than all types of cancer combined—in fact, heart disease accounts for about 1 out of 4 deaths every year. If this surprises you, you aren’t alone. According to one study, 47 percent of women didn’t know that heart disease was the number one cause of death for women.

Heart disease is not just one disease. It is a term that encompasses many diseases and conditions, including congestive heart failure, arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), coronary artery disease (CAD), heart valve problems, and even high blood pressure and stroke. CAD is the most common heart disease. It occurs when arteries in your heart become narrow due to age or buildup of cholesterol. Heart attacks occur when these arteries become so blocked that blood cannot pass through. They can also be caused by a spasm or tear in a coronary artery. Smoking and cocaine use may cause artery spasms.

Stress is a huge risk factor for heart disease, and caregivers, who often experience stress that they cannot control, are uniquely at risk. So it’s important to know the facts and risk factors for heart disease, as well as the signs of heart attack. It’s also important to take steps to reduce risk factors that are in your control.

Facts About Heart Disease

  • One in three women has some form of heart disease.
  • Heart disease is the leading contributor to disability and other diseases, including some forms of dementia.
  • Every year, heart attacks kill six times as many women as breast cancer.
  • The average age of a woman having a heart attack is mid-60s, but women in their 20s may experience them too.
  • Almost two thirds of women who die from CAD have no previous symptoms.

Risk Factors for Heart Disease

Many diseases increase your risk for heart disease. Other risk factors include lifestyle choices that you can control, as well as certain things that you can’t.


  • Diabetes (women with diabetes are at higher risk than men with diabetes)
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Obesity/overweight (especially if your weight is in your abdomen, rather than hips, thighs, and buttocks)
  • Pregnancy complications, such as preeclampsia and gestational diabetes (these increase your risk throughout your life, not just during pregnancy)

Lifestyle Factors You Can Control

Factors Outside of Your Control

  • Family history
  • Menopause (men are at higher risk for heart disease in general, but women’s risk increases after menopause)
  • Broken heart syndrome (often the result of sudden stress, this is a severe but usually temporary heart muscle failure)

In addition, taking some medications can increase risk. Birth control pills can increase blood pressure, and in women who smoke the risk of heart disease increases by 20 percent. Statins, which are often prescribed to control cholesterol, may increase risk indirectly. People taking them may have a sense of false assurance and think, “I take this medication, so I don’t have to watch my diet or exercise.”

The best way to reduce your risk? Address lifestyle factors you can control.

Signs of Heart Attack

The Hollywood stereotype of a person having a heart attack—clutching the chest, gasping for breath, and falling to the floor—might be accurate for men, but not for women. Women and men both may experience chest pain, but women’s symptoms are more subtle. Women typically describe discomfort—feeling pressure or squeezing in the chest—rather than a sharp pain.

Another difference: Men often experience heart attacks and heart attack symptoms during or shortly after activity. Women experience them at rest—even while sleeping. And women’s symptoms may be triggered by mental stress, including grief.

Other common symptoms in women may seem unrelated to heart problems, or may be mistaken for or attributed to other things:

  • Extreme fatigue (attributed to not sleeping well)
  • Discomfort in the jaw or tooth pain (mistaken for dental problems)
  • Nausea or vomiting (food poisoning or other gastrointestinal problems)
  • Heartburn (indigestion)
  • Unusual sweating or cold sweats (menopause or hot flashes)
  • Shortness of breath (being out of shape)
  • Dizziness (getting up too fast)

Because women’s symptoms are less dramatic and often less clear-cut than men’s, women often wait four times longer to get medical attention! So if you have any of these symptoms, call your doctor, call 911, or go to the emergency department right away.