Women & Heart Disease

Women & Heart Disease

Heart health nurseHeart disease is the most common cause of death for both men and women. Yet heart disease can look very different in women. It’s important for women to understand the symptoms and learn to reduce the risks.

What is heart disease, and what are the most common types that affect women?

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the U.S. — about 1 of every 4 deaths. Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the most common. CAD can cause a heart attack when blood flow to your heart muscle is blocked. Cardiovascular disease includes diseases of the blood vessels, which carry blood to different parts of your body. Atherosclerosis, irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia), atrial fibrillation, and heart valve disease are all heart problems that commonly affect women.

What are the risk factors for heart disease in women?

Risk factors, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and obesity, are the same for both men and women. For women, bigger risk factors include diabetes, stress and depression, smoking, inactivity, menopause, pregnancy complications, family history, and rheumatoid arthritis or lupus.
Is heart disease something that only older women need to worry about? No. Women under 50 can develop heart disease. About 1 in 16 women age 20 and older have coronary heart disease. You are also more at risk if you have a family history of heart disease, smoke, or have had pregnancy issues such as preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, excessive weight, or preterm labor, especially if combined with a history of high blood pressure.

What are the warning signs of a heart attack?

Women can feel chest pain, pressure, or discomfort. But chest pain may not be severe or even noticeable. Women are more likely to have symptoms such as

  • Neck, back, shoulder, upper back, or abdominal discomfort
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain in one or both arms
  • Indigestion, nausea, or vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Being lightheaded or dizzy
  • Unusual fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Edema or swelling, especially of the ankles and lower legs

These symptoms tend to occur more often in women when they are resting or even asleep. They can also be triggered by stress. Women don’t tend to recognize the symptoms of a heart attack and may not go to the emergency room until after heart damage has occurred.

What should I do if I think I’m having a heart attack?

Call 911 immediately. It can save your life. Tell them you’re experiencing heart attack symptoms. An ambulance will be sent to take you to the hospital as quickly as possible. EMTs are fully trained to treat and even resuscitate heart attack victims if necessary. Do not drive yourself or let someone else drive you.

What can women do to reduce the risk of heart disease?

Living a healthy lifestyle is key. Heart-healthy tips include:

  • Quit smoking, or don’t start.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Eat a healthy diet of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy, and lean meats. Avoid processed sugars and extra salt.
  • Manage stress, which can cause arteries to tighten.
  • Limit alcohol.
  • Take medications as directed.
  • Manage high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

What tests and screenings are available for heart disease?

There is no single test to determine if a woman is at risk for or has heart disease. Often several tests are required, such as an EKG, echocardiography, stress tests, blood work, chest x-ray, MRI, and CT scans. The Cardiology team at Weeks Medical Center uses the latest techniques, equipment, and procedures to evaluate the extent of cardiac disease and will develop a treatment plan that meets each patient’s needs.

What resources does Weeks offer for treating heart disease?

The Cardiology department at Weeks is affiliated with the New England Heart & Vascular Institute, a leading center for heart care. Our cardiologists and staff are also trained in the latest and most advanced treatment options. Weeks also offers a variety of exercise, nutrition, and education programs to assist patients about heart health, including a smoking cessation program and a diabetes support group.

For more information about cardiology services or to make an appointment, call 603-788-5095.