Heart Disease in Women: Know the Signs and Symptoms

doctor working with patient

February is heart health month, a time when national efforts are devoted to reinforcing a single message: the importance of making heart-healthy choices. The fact is that heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. While both sexes can experience the same classic symptoms, there are times when symptoms in women may be subtler, requiring increased vigilance. Consider these sobering facts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • Heart (cardiovascular) disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States, killing 289,758 women in 2013 — that’s about 1 in every 4 female deaths.
  • More than 1 in 3 women — 43 million — are living with cardiovascular disease, many without knowing it.
  • Almost two-thirds (64%) of women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease have no previous symptoms.

The scope of heart disease is wide and varied.

“Many times the term ‘heart disease’ is used to mean ‘heart attack,’" explains Dr. Alexis Oliveros, an internist at NewYork-Presbyterian Hudson Valley Hospital. In reality, ‘heart disease’ encompasses a whole array of cardiac conditions not limited to just a heart attack or myocardial infarction. It can be a heart rhythm disorder such as atrial fibrillation, congestive heart failure, or a valve disorder such as aortic valve stenosis.

Risk factors for developing heart disease are the same between both sexes and include smoking, uncontrolled hypertension, diabetes, obesity, family history, and age.  It is important to note that post-menopausal women are at an increased risk.

While both men and women can experience such classic heart attack symptoms as crushing chest pressure radiating down the arm and breaking out into a cold sweat, women’s symptoms can also be subtler and less recognizable.

More often, women may complain of shortness of breath, jaw pain, back pain, nausea, dizziness, neck pain, and excessive fatigue. The danger that results is that women will often write off these symptoms as being related to stress or strains and not seek medical attention. Additionally, healthcare providers may overlook or misdiagnose the symptoms, only for women to discover their heart disease when it’s too late.

Increased awareness and early action are first line of defense against heart disease.

“The more a woman knows about heart disease, the better chance she has of beating it,” says Dr. Oliveros.  “Her first course of action should always be an appointment with her primary care physician or cardiologist who can evaluate the symptoms and discuss treatments. If the symptoms persist and do not go away after a few minutes, she should report to the emergency room immediately to rule out a heart attack or other complications.”

Heart-healthy tips:

  • Manage your blood pressure: High blood pressure can damage your heart as well as make you susceptible to stroke. Work with your practitioner to keep the systolic, top number, below 120 and the diastolic, the bottom number, at less than 80.
  • Manage your blood sugar: Diabetes can damage blood vessels over time, leading to heart disease.
  • Manage your cholesterol: When there is too much cholesterol in your blood, arteries become narrowed, and blood flow to the heart muscle is slowed down or blocked.
  • Don’t smoke: Smoking damages the lining of your arteries, leading to a buildup of fatty material, which narrows the artery. This can cause angina (severe chest pain), a heart attack or a stroke.
  • Exercise regularly: Among other things, exercise lowers blood pressure, reducing strain on the heart.
  • Eat a healthy diet: This includes plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, low-fat dairy, whole grains and non-saturated fats. A healthy diet will help you lose weight and avoid the heart complications excess weight can bring.

To learn more or find a cardiologist, please visit nyp.org/heart or call 877-697-9355.