Women and Heart Disease

Carmen Ilie, MD
Interventional Cardiologist
St. Alexius Heart & Lung Clinic 

Women and Heart DiseaseMany people think of heart disease as a man's problem; however, women can and do get heart disease. The odds of a woman having heart disease or suffering a heart attack are more common than you may think.  An estimated 42 million American women live with cardiovascular disease, and more than eight million women have a history of heart attack and/or angina.  However, too many women are unaware of the threat they face. In fact, heart disease is the number one killer of women in the United States. It is also a leading cause of disability among women.

The most common symptom of a heart attack is tightness and pressure in the chest, described as feeling like an elephant is sitting on one’s chest.  While men and women alike may experience this chest pressure, symptoms of a heart attack also can be much more subtle.  Unfortunately, women are often so busy taking care of everyone else they tend to ignore these subtle clues.

In a study published in Circulation on early female heart attack symptoms, researchers found that during a heart attack, 43 percent of the 515 women studied had no “acute chest pain…a ‘hallmark symptom in men.’”  Therefore, it is very important to have regular checkups, know your personal risk of developing heart disease and don’t discount more subtle symptoms.  In addition to chest tightness, women may experience shortness of breath, pressure or pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen, dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting, upper back pressure and/or extreme fatigue.

Many women tend to show up in emergency rooms after much heart damage has already occurred because their symptoms are not those typically associated with a heart attack. It is important to remember if you experience these symptoms or think you are having a heart attack, call for emergency medical help immediately. Do not drive yourself to the emergency room unless you have no other options.

Several factors put women at greater risk for heart disease.  Women with diabetes are 2.5 times more likely to have heart attacks, and cigarette smoking results in a 2-3 times increased risk of dying from heart disease.  Inactivity also can affect your chances of developing heart disease; 50 percent of Caucasian women, 64 percent of African-American women, 60 percent of Hispanic women, and 53 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander women are sedentary and get no leisure time physical activity.  Currently 58 percent of Caucasian women, 80 percent of African-American women, and 74 percent Hispanic-American women are overweight or obese.

The most common cause of heart disease is narrowing or blockage of the coronary arteries, the blood vessels that supply blood to the heart itself. This is called coronary artery disease and happens slowly over time. It is the major reason people have heart attacks. Prevention is important, two-thirds of women who have a heart attack fail to make a full recovery. Statistics show that 23 percent of women die within one year of a first recognized heart attack, and 22 to 32 percent of women heart attack survivors die within five years. But more alarming is the fact that women are less likely than men to receive appropriate treatment after a heart attack.

The older a woman gets, the more likely she is to get heart disease. (You have a greater risk of heart disease if you are a woman over age 55.) You also are at greater risk if you have a close family member who had heart disease at an early age.  But women of all ages should be concerned about heart disease.

Fortunately, there are many things you can do to reduce your chances of getting heart disease. These include: knowing your blood pressure and keeping it under control; exercising regularly; not smoking; eating lots of fruits and vegetables; maintaining a healthy weight; knowing your cholesterol and triglyceride levels and keeping them under control.  Last, but not least, get tested for diabetes, and if you have it keep it under control.

All women can take steps to prevent heart disease by practicing healthy lifestyle habits, knowing the questions to ask their health providers and receiving the support they need to make heart-smart changes in their lives.