Understanding Heart Disease in Women

Heart disease in women

Understanding Heart Disease in Women

Diseases of the heart and circulatory system kill more than 500,000 women every year. Sometimes, heart attacks in women go unnoticed or unreported because some women do not always recognize the symptoms, which can be more subtle than men's. Women may frequently continue activities when they feel ill, either seeing their symptoms as minor or not realizing they indicate a heart condition. Heart disease and stroke can strike women at any age and the contributing factors can start in young women and develop over time. You can control risk factors such as aging, but you can make lifestyle changes that lower your risk for cardiovascular disease.


Risk factors and prevention


Women who smoke increase their heart disease risk two to four times more than that of non-smoking women. Either don't start or get help and quit smoking.

High cholesterol

High cholesterol in the blood can build up and lead to deposits that narrow arteries and block blood flow. There are two main types of cholesterol:

  • LDL (low-density lipoprotein): "Bad cholesterol" raises the risk of heart disease and stroke.
  • HDL (high-density lipoprotein): "Good cholesterol" helps remove cholesterol from the blood, and lowers the risk of heart disease. Low levels of HDL appear to be a stronger risk factor for women than for men. Losing extra weight, quitting smoking and regular physical activity may help boost HDL cholesterol levels.

High blood pressure

Hypertension is the most important risk factor for heart failure and stroke. Women have a greater risk of developing high blood pressure if they are 20 pounds or more over a healthy weight for their height and build, have a family history of high blood pressure, take certain oral contraceptives or have reached menopause. More than half of all women over the age of 55 suffer from this condition. The only way to find out if you have high blood pressure is to have it checked at least every two years. High blood pressure can be reduced by:

  • Reducing the sodium (salt) in your diet
  • Maintaining normal body weight
  • Limiting alcohol consumption
  • Increasing physical activity
  • Taking prescribed medications

Physical inactivity

Especially when combined with excess weight and high cholesterol. About three-fourths of American women are not active enough to keep their hearts healthy. Thirty minutes of moderate-intensity physical exercise a day on most days will help gain heart health benefits.

Being overweight

Increases your risk of cardiovascular disease. Excess body weight in women is linked to congestive heart failure, stroke, and death from heart-related causes.

Diabetes mellitus

A condition in which the body is unable to either produce or respond to insulin. Women who have diabetes have a three to seven times greater risk of heart disease and heart attack, and a much greater risk of having a stroke. Diabetes doubles the risk of a second heart attack in women.

Other risk factors for women

  • Menopause and estrogen loss
  • Birth control pills
  • High triglyceride levels
  • Excessive alcohol intake

If you suspect you have a heart problem your doctor may recommend a cardiologist, or you can choose one yourself. The cardiologist will guide your care, and plan treatments and tests.

Warning signs of a heart attack in women

  • Uncomfortable pressure, fullness, squeezing or pain in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
  • Pain that spreads to the shoulder, neck or arms.
  • Chest discomfort with light-headedness, fainting, sweating, nausea or shortness of breath.Unusual chest, stomach or abdominal pain.
  • Shortness of breath, difficulty breathingand dizziness.
  • Unexplained anxiety, weakness or fatigue.
  • Heart palpitations, cold sweat or paleness.

If you are having these symptoms, call your your doctor.

Diagnostic testing

To diagnose a possible cardiovascular problem, your doctor will ask about your medical history and symptoms, then conduct a physical examination. This may include:

  • Checking blood pressure, weight, heart, lungs and blood vessels.
  • Assess the condition of your heart with additional tests, such as blood work, X-ray, EKG, ambulatory EKG, exercise test, heart catheterization and/or nuclear imaging.

Your doctor will explain the results of your tests and determine an appropriate treatment plan for you, explaining your options and suggested treatment in detail. Now that you have a better understanding of heart disease in women, you should be able to more fully understand your symptoms and the treatments you may need.

Call the Women's Health Imaging Center to schedule your appointment
 for your mammogram, bone density test, ultrasound exam, breast biopsy or automated whole breast volume scan (ABVS).

Women's Health Imaging Center