As the No. 1 cause of death, heart disease is a threat for women of all backgrounds. Commonly thought of as a man’s problem, heart disease affects just as many women. Understanding the impact of heart disease in women can help you make the changes to keep your heart healthy and lower the chances of developing and dying from heart disease.
Everyone should be concerned about heart disease
Our providers at Westmed Family Healthcare want you to understand that heart disease is the greatest threat to your health. Each year over 700,000 Americans have a heart attack and more than 600,000 people die of heart disease. The most important fact to know is that heart disease is preventable.
Women and heart disease
Heart disease kills more women than all cancers, including breast cancer. Close to 300,000 women die of heart disease each year in the United States. Here are some fast facts we want you to know:
- Heart disease kills 1 in every 5 women
- By 45, the lifetime risk of heart disease is more than 1 in every 2 women
- Only 40% of women list heart disease as their main health concern
- Nearly 64% of women who die of heart disease had no previous symptoms
- Most women believe breast cancer is their primary health threat
Heart disease develops differently in women
Women need to take a preventive approach to heart disease by adopting and maintaining habits that promote heart health. That’s because when you, as a woman, develop heart disease, it’s more difficult to identify and treat.
Atherosclerosis, or hardening and narrowing of the arteries, is a hallmark of heart disease and a major risk factor for heart attack and stroke. Identifying narrowing and blockages plays a crucial role in diagnosing and treating heart disease.
When men develop heart disease, we often find that the plaque buildup and narrowing is localized to one area, making it easier to identify. For reasons that we still don’t know, women develop atherosclerosis that is spread out, making it more challenging to identify potential blockages.
Some diagnostic tests are less accurate in women
There’s no doubt about it: Diagnostic tests for heart disease save lives. One such test, the exercise stress test, involves exercising on a treadmill while a doctor or technician closely monitors your heart and vital signs. This test can help determine the likelihood of having coronary artery disease, the most common type of heart disease.
The stress test helps identify significant narrowing of the coronary arteries. While this test is the gold standard for noninvasive testing, studies show that this test is less accurate in women than in men.
While atherosclerosis is often spread out in women, it typically affects only one blood vessel, making it more difficult to pick up problems via the stress test. Men usually have more than one narrowed blood vessel, something an exercise stress test can pick up easier.
Physical limitations may be another factor. Men can usually exercise hard enough for the test to be effective. Older women, on the other hand, may not be able to push their hearts hard enough for an accurate test result.
Women have unique heart disease risk factors
The female hormone estrogen plays a role in helping to protect women against heart disease by decreasing low-density lipoprotein and boosting high-density lipoprotein, a good form of cholesterol.
As women age, estrogen levels decline and women lose some of this protection. As a result, women age 45 and older tend to have higher bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol than men. Additionally, women tend to be more overweight than men, and men are more likely to quit smoking as they get older than women, further impacting their heart disease risk.
Women have more subtle heart attack symptoms
When surveyed about heart attack symptoms, most people identified classic symptoms like crushing chest pain and pressure. Only a small percentage of women identified less common symptoms associated with heart attack.
As a woman, you should know that classic heart attack symptoms are more common in men. When women have heart attacks, symptoms are often subtle and easily missed. You might chalk your symptoms up to fatigue or stress.
Women who have a heart attack are more likely to experience:
- Sudden fatigue
- Sudden low stamina
- Shortness of breath
- General unwell feeling
- Dull chest discomfort
- Jaw pain
- Neck pain
- Abdominal pain
Take charge of your heart health
Because heart disease impacts women in unique ways, we urge you to take special care to protect your heart early on. Avoid bad lifestyle choices like smoking and drinking excess alcohol, and engage in a healthy lifestyle that involves:
- Getting plenty of exercise
- Monitoring your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar
- Eating a highly nutritious diet
These steps go a long way in lowering your risk of heart disease.
The power to lower your risk of heart disease is in your hands. While risk factors like age and family history are outside of your control, you can make changes to control many other risk factors.
Speak with one of our WestMed Family Healthcare providers about simple, healthy lifestyle changes you can make to lower your chances of developing heart disease. Contact us at 303-927-0673 to schedule an appointment at our Westminster, Colorado office, or book here online with our easy-to-use scheduling tool.