Heart disease is the #1 leading cause of death for women in the United States. According to the CDC, about 1 in 16 adult females develop coronary heart disease. Many times, it could have been better prevented.
Contrary to the popular assumption in society, heart attacks and cardiovascular disease are not a “man’s problem”. Before the 1930s, it wasn’t a leading cause of mortality overall. Now that metabolic syndrome (heart disease and diabetes) is a growing norm, research has found that heart disease affects women differently than men. And many risks are still being left unaddressed in women’s health.
How can women pay better attention to their heart health in preventative ways? Keep reading.
This article is inspired by the interview regarding women’s heart health with Dr. Nanette Wenger on the Fempower Health Podcast.
Heart Disease Risk Factors in Women
What are the differences in heart disease in women and men? Even though women are more at risk for poor heart health, the following risk factors for men and women are generally the same:
High blood pressure
So what’s the difference? Why are there more risks for women developing heart disease? A few things contribute to this.
Heart Health in Pregnancy and Menopause
The biggest difference is the unique risks that pregnancy and menopause can have on heart health. (Did you know this?)
From added stress to Preeclampsia (blood pressure complications during pregnancy), pregnancy can pose risks that women might not know about. As Dr. Wenger states, “Pregnancy is often the first major ‘stress test’ a woman undergoes. Cardiovascular abnormalities must be addressed.”
During menopause, women experience a loss of estrogen, which is a female hormone that plays a big role in regulating many essential functions, including the heart. There are many studies and even statements from the American Heart Association suggesting women pay extra attention to heart health during menopause.
Listen to the Fempower Health podcast episode with Dr. Joanne Stone of Mount Sinai as she discusses Preventing the Preventable During Pregnancy, which includes preeclampsia.
Risks in Preexisting Conditions
Certain preexisting conditions might also be at a higher risk of cardiovascular issues. For example, women with diabetes tend to be more at risk of cardiovascular disease than men with diabetes. Mood disorders like depression and systemic autoimmune diseases such as Lupus (which are all more common in women) also contribute to risks.
Heart health isn’t only a concern for older women, either. Today, there is more heart disease in young women. But this can and should be prevented.
Monitoring Heart Health in Women
What can health providers do to prevent and monitor heart disease among women? As Dr. Wenger says, “We’re not dealing with a healthy population. We have to address the need for better heart health overall.”
Women who have symptoms must be evaluated as soon as possible. If you or a woman you care about has already been diagnosed with heart disease, there are several things to keep a close eye on:
Cholesterol: regular check-ups with your doctor to monitor cholesterol levels.
Diet: eat healthily and know the link between diet and women’s health.
Lifestyle: decrease stress and exercise regularly.
Blood pressure: aim for the 120/80 range. If you have high blood pressure, follow the medical advice from your doctor.
Health professionals must realize that women’s heart disease symptoms, as well as heart attack symptoms, can differ from men's.
Signs of Heart Attack in Women
A lot of people know the common warning signs of a heart attack: chest pain, shortness of breath, and cold sweats. But women can have not-so-obvious signs that others may write off as no reason for emergency. Knowing the signs is vital for equipping women with adequate knowledge of their heart health.
Many women have angina (chest pain) before they have a heart attack, but not all of them. Women can be more likely to experience nausea, jaw pain, back pain, and indigestion, which many don’t realize are signs of a heart attack.
Here’s a list of women's heart attack symptoms:
Shortness of breath
Sharp or dull chest pain
Pain between the shoulder blades
Numbness or tingling in the left arm
Pain or pressure on the face, back, or abdomen
If you feel any of these symptoms, get medical attention immediately. Going to the ER for heart attack symptoms should be followed by an EKG and close monitoring.
Women’s Heart Health: What Can We Do?
There’s no easy answer for solving any health issue. The best we can do is get people informed, be proactive about preventing cardiovascular disease in women, and improve medical care for women’s health.
How can medical professionals and those with heart concerns help women be more informed about the risks, signs, and preventative measures? Here are a few things we can all do.
Increase awareness. Parents, educators, doctors, and organizations can increase awareness of women’s heart health. Experts can work together to bring back a widespread understanding of what the risks look like and ways to live preventatively.
Know individual family health risks. Discuss your family health history. For example, did your grandmother have atherosclerosis or heart surgery? Inform your doctor. Inform your daughter(s) so she can know what details to tell her healthcare providers, too.
Community education. Some racial and ethnic groups are more at risk of developing heart disease. Community-wide education and group-specific awareness can give people access to the prevention methods they need.
Access to optimal health care. The healthcare system is difficult to navigate. But seeking (and providing) better care options can save a woman’s life.
Insurance coverage. Some women end up paying thousands of dollars for medical care. Preventative visits should be fully covered, so contact your insurance to get the coverage you need.
Research for women’s health. Medical researchers must start putting more effort and funding into women-specific research. Search for a women’s heart center for more information.
Ongoing health surveillance. Regularly monitor and check in with your health: with yourself, your community, and your healthcare providers.
“Heart health in women is often the determinant of the heart health of the community and the nation. Women must value themselves— must value their health— and advocate for themselves. They cannot do for their family or their community or their nation what they cannot do for themselves.” - Dr. Nanette Wenger, Cardiologist
4 Steps for Improving Women’s Health
Investigate: Through research, funding, and ongoing study.
Educate: At the individual, family, community, and national level.
Advocate: By listening to w