Heart Disease in Women
What Is Heart Disease in Women?
Heart disease (also called cardiovascular disease) is the leading cause of death in the U.S., and one in four women die from it each year. And while heart disease does affect as many women as it does men, the symptoms of heart disease in women can be different. At Baptist Health, we understand that the disease often goes undiagnosed in women. That’s why we work with our patients to help them understand its causes and learn to look for signs.
Understand the early signs and symptoms of heart disease in women, as well as risk factors, prevention, and treatment methods.
Common Types of Heart Disease in Women
The most prevalent heart disease in women is coronary artery disease (CAD).
This occurs when blood vessels that provide oxygen and nutrients to the heart muscle become constricted or obstructed due to plaque accumulation.
Another prevalent type of heart disease that impacts women is heart failure. This occurs when the heart is incapable of pumping blood effectively enough to fulfill the body's requirements. Various factors can contribute to heart failure, such as CAD, hypertension, diabetes, and heart valve abnormalities.
Abnormal heart rhythms, also known as arrhythmias, represent another frequent type of heart disease that can affect women. There are several types of arrhythmias, with atrial fibrillation being the most common irregular heartbeat. Atrial fibrillation happens when the upper chambers of the heartbeat abnormally and lack coordination with the lower chambers. If not addressed, this condition can result in blood clots, stroke, and heart failure.
Early Signs and Symptoms of Heart Disease in Women
Detection of early heart disease symptoms can lead to better outcomes in treatment and prevention. However, not all women will have beginning cardiac symptoms or warning signs of heart disease before an emergency arises, such as a heart attack. For those who do have symptoms, there are several warning signs that may indicate heart disease in women. Warning signs and symptoms of heart problems include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Chest pain and discomfort
- Pain in neck, jaw, shoulders, or upper back
- Pain in both arms
- Shortness of breath
- Nauseated or vomiting
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Unusual fatigue
- Upper abdominal pain
- General weakness
- Changes in skin color (from normal to grayish)
Symptoms of heart disease or a heart blockage tend to be more subtle in women than in men. In some cases, women do not feel much pain in the chest, and heart issues are more prone to occur in women while at rest or sleeping. This is why it is important to consult with your doctor if you have symptoms or risk factors for heart disease. Call 911 or have someone take you immediately to the ER if you are noticing any possible symptoms of a heart attack.
Women's Heart Attack Symptoms
Many women have heart attacks without realizing it because their symptoms don’t match the classic chest pain, pressure and pain radiating down their left arms that men experience. In fact, only half of women having a heart attack experience any chest pain. Women are more likely to have some combination of the following cardiac symptoms when having a heart attack, including:
- Dizziness or feeling lightheaded
- Extreme fatigue
- Indigestion and heartburn
- Nausea and vomiting
- Difficulty breathing
- Back or neck pain
If you suspect you may be having a heart attack, call 911.
Risk Factors for Women's Heart Disease
- Physical inactivity
- Uncontrolled high blood pressure
- High cholesterol levels
- Family history
- Inflammatory illnesses such as rheumatoid arthritis
- Mental health: Stress and depression aren’t good for anyone’s health, but research has shown that those factors increase women’s risk of heart disease more than men’s.
- Pregnancy complications: Women who experience high blood pressure during pregnancy (a condition called preeclampsia) or gestational diabetes are at a higher risk of heart disease later in life.
- Menopause: The drop in estrogen production after menopause leaves women more vulnerable to developing heart disease.
- Broken heart syndrome: Extremely stressful situations (such as the death of a loved one) can bring on this condition and cause heart muscle failure. While normally temporary, it can be dangerous, especially in post-menopausal women.
- Uncontrolled high blood pressure—Women who experience sustained high blood pressure face a greater risk of heart disease.
- African American—Black women have a much higher chance of experiencing high blood pressure compared to their White counterparts.
- Undetected—High blood pressure frequently goes undetected in women.
- Diabetes—Women with diabetes are more likely to develop heart disease than women without the condition.
- Physical inactivity—A sedentary lifestyle can contribute to heart disease risk in women.
- Smoking—Female smokers have a higher risk of heart disease compared to non-smokers.
- High cholesterol levels—Elevated cholesterol levels can lead to the buildup of plaque in arteries, increasing heart disease risk in women.
- Family history—If heart disease runs in the family, a woman's chances of experiencing the condition may be higher.
- Inflammatory illnesses—Conditions like rheumatoid arthritis can raise the risk of heart disease in women.
- Mental health—Stress and depression are more strongly linked to heart disease risk in women than in men.
- Obesity—Carrying extra body weight can lead to multiple risk factors for heart disease in women, including elevated blood pressure, increased cholesterol levels, and diabetes.
- Early first period—Women who begin menstruating at an early age have a higher risk.
- Early menopause—Women who experience menopause before the age of 40 are at an increased risk of heart disease.
- Preterm delivery—Giving birth before 37 weeks of pregnancy places a woman at greater risk.
- High blood pressure—The risk of future heart disease development is twice as high for pregnant women with high blood pressure. This is also known as preeclampsia.
- Gestational diabetes—The onset of diabetes while pregnant can heighten a woman's likelihood of experiencing heart disease.
- Peripartum cardiomyopathy—A rare but serious condition where the heart muscle weakens during the final months of pregnancy or shortly after delivery, leading to heart failure.
- Congestive heart failure—A medical condition marked by the heart's insufficient capacity to pump blood, causing fluid retention in the lungs and elsewhere in the body.
- Arrhythmias—Irregular heart rhythms can occur during pregnancy, with some types posing a risk to both the mother and the baby.
- Venous thromboembolism—The formation of blood clots within the deep leg veins, or deep vein thrombosis, and their potential migration to the lungs, resulting in pulmonary embolism, pose serious risks. These conditions have a higher probability of occurring during pregnancy.
- Aortic dissection—A rare but potentially fatal condition where the inner layer of the aorta tears, causing blood to flow between the layers and forcing them apart. Pregnancy can increase the risk of aortic dissection in women with certain genetic disorders or pre-existing conditions.
- A nutritious, heart-conscious diet—Consuming foods low in saturated fats, sugars, and sodium while focusing on fiber, fruits, and vegetables can aid in preventing arterial plaque accumulation. This can ultimately decrease your heart disease risk.
- Exercising regularly—Committing to a minimum of 150 minutes of physical activity each week, or daily 30-minute sessions for five days, can lower the likelihood of developing heart disease. Aim for a mix of moderate-intensity aerobic activities, such as brisk walking, swimming, or cycling.
- Not smoking—Quitting smoking can greatly improve your heart health and reduce the risk of heart-related complications. Consider seeking support from healthcare professionals or smoking cessation programs to help you quit.
- Maintaining a healthy weight—Carrying excess weight can put strain on your heart and increase the risk of heart disease. Your healthcare provider can help determine a healthy weight range for you based on your individual needs.
- Managing stress—Chronic stress can contribute to heart disease. Integrate stress-relieving practices like meditation, yoga, or deep breathing exercises into your everyday activities.
- Limiting alcohol intake—Excessive alcohol consumption can increase your risk of heart disease. It's recommended that women limit their alcohol intake to one drink per day or less to help maintain a healthy heart.
- Controlling blood pressure—Pay close attention to your blood pressure. If it's consistently high, work with your healthcare provider to develop a treatment plan, which may include medication, lifestyle changes, or both.
- Regular check-ups and screening—Regularly visit your healthcare provider to discuss your heart health and risk factors. They can help monitor your cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels, and recommend appropriate preventive measures based on your individual risk factors.
- Electrocardiogram (ECG/EKG): This test is used to record your heart’s electrical activity (using electrodes attached to your chest) to check for arrhythmia (irregular heart rhythm) or other abnormalities.
- Stress test: In order to determine how your heart responds to physical stress, your heart rhythms and blood pressure are monitored continuously while you are exercising —usually, walking on a treadmill.
- Echocardiogram (Echo): This test uses sound waves to create moving images of your heart to assess how well the various chambers and valves of the heart are working.
- Chest X-ray: This can be used to obtain images of your heart and lungs to look for signs of heart failure or lung problems that might point to other causes of your symptoms.
- Cardiac computed tomography (CT) scan: For this test, your doctor will inject contrast dye that will highlight your heart and blood vessels in the CT images.
- Cardiac magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): An MRI can create detailed pictures of your heart to determine whether or not you have heart disease.
- Coronary angiography and cardiac catheterization: Cardiac catheterization is used to inject dye into your coronary arteries. Then X-ray images (angiography) are taken that can reveal any blockages in the arteries.
- ACE inhibitors: These medications may help reduce the risk of heart attack by blocking the production of a chemical that narrows blood vessels.
- Anticoagulants: Often called “blood thinners,” these medications don’t technically thin the blood, but they do help prevent clots from forming.
- Antiplatelets: These also help prevent clots from forming by stopping platelets from clumping together.
- Beta blockers: These are used to slow down your heart rate, and they can help treat high blood pressure and arrhythmia.
- Calcium-channel blockers: These medications relax the blood vessels to allow blood to flow more easily to the heart.
- Digitalis: If your heart is unable to pump hard enough on its own, these medications can help it to contract harder.
- Diuretics: Also called “water pills,” these medications help reduce fluid retention in the body.
- Nitrates: These are used to relax blood vessels and help prevent chest pain.
- Statin: This group of drugs help to lower cholesterol levels.
- Angioplasty: This procedure is used to open blocked or narrowed arteries. A doctor threads a thin, flexible tube with a balloon on the end into the artery and then inflates it to open the artery. Sometimes a device called a stent is also inserted to help keep the artery open.
- Coronary artery bypass graft: Also called “bypass surgery,” this procedure takes a piece of a vein or artery from elsewhere in your body and attaches it above and below an area of blockage, creating a bypass around it.
Hypertension risk factors:
Medical conditions and lifestyle choices:
Reproductive health and pregnancy-related risk factors:
Cardiovascular conditions during pregnancy:
Luckily, heart disease in women is a largely preventable disease. Leading a healthy lifestyle can greatly reduce your risk. The most important things you can do for your heart include:
Preventative measures include:
Depending on your symptoms and your risk factors for heart disease, your Baptist Health cardiologist may recommend one or more of the following tests to help assess the health of your heart:
Your treatment will depend on your specific diagnosis and the severity of your heart disease symptoms and progression. At Baptist Health, we offer treatment options for heart disease in women including both medication and surgical or non-surgical procedures.
There are several medications that may be used to treat heart disease in women. These include:
Surgical and non-surgical procedures are sometimes used to treat heart disease in women. These include:
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