Heart disease is the number one killer of men and women. But only a little more than 50 percent of women in the United States realize this. In fact, when it comes to women’s heart health, heart disease accounts for approximately one in five deaths for women. Research also suggests that women typically don’t recover as well from a heart attack as men.
Women have different risk factors for heart problems, and there are biological differences between how a heart of a man works and a heart of a woman works. That makes a big difference in how heart disease presents itself in women, which is why it’s traditionally been more difficult to diagnose.
How women’s hearts work differently
If you looked at a man’s heart and a woman’s heart side by side, you would likely think that they look pretty much the same. However, there are differences that impact the risk factors for heart disease and vascular issues.
For example, men’s hearts and arteries are larger than women’s hearts. Because of this, women’s arteries and vessels are more prone to blockages and blood clots. Additionally, plaque accumulates differently in the arteries of men and women. For men, it’s often harder and it affects the three arteries of the heart. In women, it’s typically softer and more likely to break free and possibly trigger a heart attack.
Here are some of the other differences:
- The walls that divide some of the heart’s interior chambers are typically thinner in women’s hearts.
- Women’s hearts pump faster than men’s while sending out approximately 10 percent less blood with every pump.
- Stress increases a woman’s heart rate and forces her heart to pump out more blood. Stress causes a man’s arteries to constrict, causing high blood pressure.
- Women’s hearts are protected by the hormone estrogen. That’s why the risk of heart disease in women typically stays lower until they reach menopause.
Signs of heart problems in women
Chest pain is the most common sign of heart problems in men and women alike. But many women experience different symptoms of a heart attack and other issues, with some never having any chest pain at all.
“Women have some atypical symptoms of a heart attack, and that can include fatigue, decreased exercise tolerance and abdominal pain or upset,” says Denise M. Dietz, MS, MD, FACC, a cardiologist at Bon Secours – Cardiology in our Richmond market. “Women also have traditional risk factors for heart disease – high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and smoking, but they also have some unique risk factors, which include autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, and they also have a unique exposure to hormones that we need to take into account.”
This is why it’s so important to know the signs of heart and vascular problems that women may have. They include:
- Back pain or pain between the shoulder blades
- Dizziness or feeling lightheaded
- Indigestion, nausea or vomiting
- Pain in the jaw or neck
- Pale, clammy skin
- Pressure or pain in the upper part of the stomach or lower chest area
- Sharp pain in the upper part of the body
- Shortness of breath
Tips for women’s heart health
Getting an annual checkup is one of the most important things women can do to support their own heart health.
Your provider will work with you to monitor risk factors and keep an eye on important numbers like blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Left untreated, any of these issues can increase your risk of heart disease.
Smoking, drinking and eating unhealthy foods can also put you at a higher risk. A family history of heart disease increases your chances of developing it, especially over age 65. Use these additional tips to reduce your risk and support your heart health:
- Eat a heart-healthy diet. Try to fill your plate with lean proteins, whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Limit sodium and cut back on sugar.
- Manage health conditions. Staying on top of your conditions can lower your risk of developing heart disease, as can taking medications according to your doctor’s instructions.
- Reduce stress. Chronic stress can increase the odds of you engaging in behaviors that up your risk for heart disease.
- Get plenty of sleep. Research shows that getting less than six to seven hours nightly can increase blood pressure and raise your risk of heart disease.
Learn about the cardiology services we offer at Bon Secours.