Women and Heart Disease
The facts about cardiovascular disease in women are worrisome. But there are plenty of things you can do to protect your heart health.

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Picture of a person holding a heart Women and Heart Disease

Many women live in fear of breast cancer, but they often don't realize that heart disease poses a much greater threat. In fact, heart disease is the number one cause of death among American women. Consider these sobering facts:

  • About 1 in 30 women die of breast cancer. But, nearly 1 in 3 women die of cardiovascular disease, which includes heart disease and stroke.
  • Cardiovascular disease kills more women each year than cancer, lung disease, Alzheimer's disease, and accidents combined.
  • About 24 percent of men who have a heart attack die within a year. In women, the figure is 42 percent.

Your chance of developing heart disease increases with age, and it goes up greatly after menopause. But women of all ages should be concerned about heart disease. It's never too early or too late to take steps to protect your heart.

Take charge of your heart health
You can't change some things that put your heart at risk, such as getting older and having a family history of heart disease. There are also certain conditions that tend to be more common in women, such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, which are associated with an increased relative risk for heart disease. But there are plenty of other things you can do to keep your heart strong and healthy.

  • If you smoke, quit. Smoking has been closely linked to heart disease as well as a host of other diseases. Quitting is the single best thing you can do for your health. But quitting is hard. Talk to your doctor about products and support that can help you succeed.
  • Get your blood pressure checked. High blood pressure (hypertension) makes the heart work harder than normal. It can also damage your blood vessels. But you may have high blood pressure and not know it because it has no symptoms. Have your blood pressure checked on a regular basis, and if it is high, take steps to lower it. Exercise more, eat less salt, lose some weight if needed, and take medication if your doctor prescribes it.
  • Control your cholesterol. Cholesterol is a fatty substance that can clog your arteries and raise your risk of a heart attack. Saturated fat raises your cholesterol level, so limit saturated fats and avoid trans fats. Instead, choose healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats found in olive oil, nuts, seeds, and some fish.
  • Get physical. Regular physical activity can cut your risk for many of the main causes of illness and death, including heart disease and stroke. It can also help you lower high blood pressure and cholesterol and control your weight. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity most days of the week. But check with your doctor before you increase your activity level.
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet. Eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy. Choose lean meats, cut back on sugar, and watch your portion sizes.
  • Watch your weight. In most people, extra pounds leads to higher cholesterol and blood pressure levels. Keep your weight in check by combining a healthy, high-fiber diet with increased physical activity.

Know the signs of a heart attack
The keys to surviving a heart attack are knowing the signs and then acting quickly. Women often fail to recognize they are having a heart attack, and they are less likely than men to seek emergency treatment. That may be one reason why women are more likely than men to die from a heart attack.

We all think we know what a heart attack looks like. We've seen the movies where the man grabs his chest or upper arm and collapses. Some heart attacks are sudden and dramatic. But most of them start slowly with only mild pain or discomfort. This can be confusing and cause a delay in treatment.

Some of the signs of a heart attack include:

  • Pain or discomfort in the center of the chest
  • Pain or discomfort in other areas of the upper body, including the arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest pain
  • Other symptoms such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or lightheadedness

Chest pain or discomfort is the most common symptom in women. But they are more likely than men to have other symptoms, especially:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat
  • Nausea, vomiting, or feeling of heartburn
  • Back, left shoulder, or jaw pain
  • Severe fatigue or fatigue with exertion

Call 9-1-1 right away if you have symptoms of a heart attack. Call even if you're not sure it's a heart attack. Do not wait for someone to drive you to the hospital. Emergency medical personnel can start treatment right away if you need it. Minutes can make the difference between life and death with a heart attack.

By Lila Havens, Staff Writer
Created on 06/29/1999
Updated on 09/06/2011
Sources:
  • National Women's Health Information Center. Heart disease.
  • National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. Women and heart attack.
  • American Heart Association. Heart disease and stroke statistics - 2010 update.
  • Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Cardiovascular disease and other chronic conditions in women: recent findings.
  • Mosca L, Benjamin EJ, Berra K, et al. Effectiveness-based guidelines for the prevention of cardiovascular disease in women - 2011 Update. Circulation. 2011;123:00-00.
Copyright © OptumHealth.
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