Heart Disease in Women

Getting to the Heart of the Matter

Written by Kelly Hebel, RN
Manager of the Cardiac Cath Lab
Sky Ridge Medical Center


Many women are not aware that cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death for women in the United States. In fact, most people think of heart disease as a man's problem and that breast cancer is the number one health threat for women.

Each year, twice as many women die of heart disease than of breast, lung and other cancers combined. And every year since 1984, more women than men have died of heart disease in the United States.

Why Are Women So Affected By Heart Disease?

One reason may be that women seem to have their heart disease diagnosed later in life when the disease is more advanced; therefore, they are more likely to die or suffer serious complications. The probability that a woman suffering a heart attack will die within one year is almost twice that of a man.

And there are other complicating factors. Because heart attack symptoms may be different in women than in men, the symptoms may be overlooked or misinterpreted. Also, women are referred for cardiac testing less frequently than men, and when those tests are performed, interpretation is sometimes more difficult due to gender differences.

Some women have a family health history that predisposes them to a risk of heart disease. Knowing your family history and sharing that with your physician is extremely important so that he or she can monitor your health with appropriate cardiac screening tests.

But there are other, more easily controlled, factors that can help prevent heart disease:

Smoking — Smoking is a factor in about half of heart attacks in middle-aged women. A woman who smokes and uses birth control pills increases her risk of heart disease even higher.

High Blood Pressure — This is a risk factor that can be controlled through diet and, if necessary, medication.

Diabetes — Women with diabetes are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease, so it is essential that this disease be controlled with diet or medication and appropriate weight management.

Physical Inactivity and Obesity — 41% of overweight women are not physically active during their leisure time, leading to a 30-50% greater risk of developing high blood pressure.

Genetics — Genetic risk factors make African American women, as a group, particularly vulnerable to a higher predisposition for heart disease and stroke.

Do You Know the Symptoms?

Women may experience heart attack symptoms different from those of men. Here are some common and less common symptoms of heart attacks in women. The American Heart Association says the body likely will send one or more of these warning signals of a heart attack:

  • Uncomfortable pressure, fullness, squeezing or pain in the center of the chest lasting more than a few minutes.
  • Pain spreading to the shoulders, neck or arms.
  • Chest discomfort with lightheadedness, fainting, sweating, nausea or shortness of breath.

However, women may experience some of these less common symptoms:

  • Atypical chest pain, stomach or abdominal pain.
  • Nausea or dizziness.
  • Shortness of breath and difficulty breathing.
  • Unexplained anxiety, weakness or fatigue, palpitations, cold sweat or paleness.

If you experience any of these symptoms, call your physician immediately or 911. Remember...time is muscle.

For more information on women's health issues or cardiac services at Sky Ridge Medical Center, please call us today at 720-225-1016.