Know your heart: Heart symptoms, risks differ for women

Feb 2,2014
If the way to a woman’s heart is through her mind, the key to keeping her heart healthy is knowledge.

Yet many people don’t know that the symptoms of a heart attack for women aren’t the same as men. Or that some risk factors for heart disease are greater in women. Or that it’s the number one killer of women in the United States.

Overall, the death rate for heart disease has fallen over the past 30 years, but more so for men. Among women, heart disease is the cause of one in three deaths, approximately one death every minute, according to the American Heart Association.

That’s why the Heart Association’s Go Red For Women campaign advocates for women’s heart health each February.

Know the signs

Many of the 42 million women with heart disease don’t know it. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 64 percent of people who die of coronary heart disease had no prior symptoms. This most common form of heart disease is caused by a buildup in the arteries that supply the heart and can lead to heart attack and stroke. 

TV and the movies have trained us to expect a heart attack to cause chest-clutching, drop-to-your-knees pain. In women, it can be much less dramatic.

Women are more likely to experience an uncomfortable pressure, squeezing or fullness in the chest. Researchers believe this could be because women tend to have more blockages in the smaller arteries that supply blood to the heart, not just in the main arteries.

Other signs of a heart attack for women, shortness of breath, pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen, nausea or vomiting, dizziness, pain in the jaw or back and fatigue, are easily mistaken for or dismissed as the flu, acid reflux or aging.

Women’s symptoms may not seem like those typically associated with a heart attack. But it’s important to seek help immediately if you experience them or think you are having a heart attack. Waiting can cause more damage to the heart.

Manage the risks

Some risk factors for heart disease are hereditary. Women are more likely to be affected by metabolic syndrome, a combination of abdominal fat, high blood pressure, high blood sugar and high triglyceride. Women’s hearts are also more affected by mental stress and depression, and smoking is more of a risk factor for women than for men, especially in combination with oral contraceptives. 

But many other risk factors for heart disease are manageable, such as obesity, cholesterol, high blood pressure and inactivity. A good place to start is to know your risk of heart disease. Then begin building heart-healthy habits.

First, prioritize your health. This includes getting enough quality sleep, reducing stress, which can damage artery walls, eating right and exercising. The American Heart Association recommends eating a diet low in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium.

Next, set realistic goals. If you aren’t exercising now, start by adding a 30-minute walk. Then increase the frequency, duration and intensity as you go. If you need help to quit smoking, talk to your doctor. There are many resources available to help.

Finally, find your motivation. Reducing the risk of heart disease alone is probably not enough reason for you to make changes, so consider rewarding yourself in some way for achieving heart-healthy goals, a new pair of shoes, a trip to the beach – maybe with a new red dress!

Friday, Feb. 7 is National Wear Red Day to raise awareness about women’s heart disease. Find out more about the Go Red for Women campaign at goredforwomen.org.