Heart health should be at the forefront of all of our minds. In the past, heart disease may have been associated particularly with men. However, women are also susceptible to heart disease. Heart disease is the number one cause of death for both men and women in the United States.
There are risks and symptoms of heart disease and heart attacks that are unique to women. So, someone without medical training who was familiar with the common symptoms of a heart attack in a man may have not immediately recognize one in a woman, losing precious time. Thankfully, research and care practices have improved in recent years and awareness has increased.
If you’re a woman, or even if you just spend a lot of time with around one, there are certain things you should know about heart disease in women. Make sure to educate yourself. One in three women is living with a form of cardiovascular disease. Knowledge could help you recognize a problem, and prevent further issues. It could even save a life.
Risk Factors for Heart Disease Unique to Women
Many of the risk factors for heart disease in women are the same as those with men: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obesity. Others that affect men as well may disproportionately affect women. Others are specific to women. These include:
- Sedentary lifestyle: Women are more likely to be inactive
- Diabetes: Women with diabetes are at a greater risk for heart disease than diabetic men.
- Stress and depression: Women are physically affected by mental illness more than men, and this includes effects on the heart. Depression can make maintaining a healthy lifestyle difficult.
- Smoking: Female smokers are more likely to develop heart disease than their male counterparts.
- Broken heart syndrome: This condition occurs more frequently in women after menopause. It is a heart muscle failure that is severe but often temporary heart muscle failure brought on by stressful events.
- Menopause: Lower levels of estrogen are linked to increased risk of coronary microvascular disease.
- Some chemotherapy drugs and radiation treatments for cancers; This includes specific breast cancer treatments
- Pregnancy complications: Complications such as gestational diabetes or high blood pressure during pregnancy can affect a woman’s long-term health and increase the risk of heart disease.
Heart Attack Symptoms in Women
The most common and well-known symptom of a heart attack in men is chest pain. This is also the most common symptom among women, but they are more likely than men to have a heart attack without symptoms related to chest pain. These symptoms can include:
- Neck, jaw, shoulder, or upper back pain
- Abdominal discomfort
- Nausea or vomiting
- Pain in one or both arms
- Shortness of breath
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Unusual or sudden fatigue
Also, the chest pain may be described as tightness or pressure instead of outright pain. Other symptoms can also be subtler, perhaps because of the prevalence of blockages in smaller arteries as well as the main arteries. This is called coronary microvascular disease or small vessel heart disease.
Symptoms may also be missed because they can occur when a woman is resting or even asleep. Because of this, by the time many women see a doctor or go to the hospital, there is already damage because the heart attack was undetected.
Prevention, Treatment, and Living with Heart Disease
One thing men and women have in common is the best way to prevent heart disease and reduce risks of recurrence: healthy diet, exercise, and general wellness. This also includes giving up harmful habits like smoking.
Often the key to good health is nutrition. Many foods have been heralded as heart-healthy, but which ones can back up their claims? A nutritionist or doctor can give you more specific guidelines, but good foods to integrate into your diet include: avocados, fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids (these omega-3 fatty acids can also be found it certain seeds), leafy greens, antioxidant-rich berries, walnuts, almonds, whole grains, beans, garlic, and even a bit of the right kind of dark chocolate.
Exercise is one of the most beneficial things you can do not just for heart health, but for overall health. The benefits of regular exercise include blood pressure management, stress relief, bone loss prevention, increased energy, improved circulation, improved cholesterol levels, improved sleep quality, stroke risk reduction, and of course a reduction of coronary heart disease of up to 40% in women.
Even if you’ve been diagnosed with heart disease and are on prescribed medication, lifestyle changes must be part of your recovery plan. Your doctor or rehabilitation specialist can work on this with you.
There are organizations specifically dedicated to helping women with cardiovascular disease that offer wonderful resources such as the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign.
If you want to take a proactive role in your cardiovascular health or have concerns, Dr. Farhan Majeed can assist in a treatment plan with state-of-the-art therapies and technologies. Those in the Port Charlotte, Florida area are encouraged to call (941) 629-2111 and schedule an appointment.