Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States. Too often, women don't seek medical attention because they miss the signs or don’t recognize the symptoms of heart disease. That’s because the signs and symptoms of heart disease are often different for women than for men.
Understanding risk factors, taking active steps to prevent heart disease and recognizing the symptoms of a cardiac emergency can significantly lower the odds of experiencing a heart-related crisis.
What is heart disease?
Heart disease, or cardiovascular disease, is a set of conditions affecting the heart muscle and vascular system. It includes coronary artery disease, irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) and congestive heart failure, to name a few. Of these, coronary artery disease, or damage to the major blood vessels of the heart, most commonly affects women.
Heart disease can lead to serious and potentially deadly conditions if left untreated. These include heart attacks, strokes and blood clots.
What are the signs of a heart attack or stroke in women?
Heart attack symptoms
Some signs of heart attacks, including an “elephant-like” pressure on the chest, are common among women and men. But often these symptoms can be more subtle for women. In addition, women more frequently experience these symptoms:
- Jaw or back pain
- Nausea or vomiting
- Shortness of breath
Women experiencing any of these symptoms should seek immediate medical attention.
The FAST acronym can help you identify stroke symptoms:
- Face: Drooping or numbness, especially on one side
- Arm: Numbness or weakness on one side
- Speech: Slurred speech
- Time: Dial 911 immediately
Women's stroke symptoms are similar to men's. Other signs of a stroke include loss of consciousness, behavioral changes, confusion or agitation, and hallucinations.
What risk factors contribute to heart disease in women?
High cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking and obesity are common risk factors for heart disease. Other factors that can increase risk of heart disease in women include:
- Alcohol consumption
How to lower risk
Fortunately, there are several steps women can take to reduce their risk of developing heart disease, including:
- Eating a heart-healthy diet
- Exercising regularly
- Limiting alcohol intake
- Managing stress in a healthy way
- Not smoking
- Getting regular checkups
- Understanding blood pressure and cholesterol numbers
It's impossible to completely eliminate the risk of heart disease. But taking steps to understand the signs and symptoms and working to lower risk factors are important preventive measures.