Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women in the United States. Women experience heart disease differently than men.
Understanding those differences can help women access the appropriate healthcare resources quickly.
Reducing risk factors and focusing on prevention are important to decreasing the negative impact of heart disease in women.
Causes of Heart Disease in Women
Heart disease encompasses different heart and blood vessel conditions, such as coronary artery disease, vascular disease, high blood pressure, and heart failure.
The most common cause of heart disease is atherosclerosis. It is caused by plaque buildup, a collection of cholesterol and fatty deposits, on the walls of the arteries.
Over time, atherosclerosis restricts blood flow to the heart.
As blood flow becomes more restricted, the heart lacks oxygen and nutrient-rich blood. This condition is called ischemia, and the heart becomes less effective.
Ischemia causes some of the symptoms of heart disease, such as chest pain, or angina.
Symptoms of Heart Disease
Women typically have symptoms of heart disease about 10 years later than men. For men, chest pain is a common symptom. In women, symptoms of a heart attack are more subtle and can include:
- Pain or aching in the chest and upper arms or back
- Unusually fast heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
Heart disease may not be as obvious as a heart attack. It may present with these symptoms:
- Angina, usually felt in the chest, but also in the left shoulder, arms, neck, back, or jaw
- Shortness of breath
- Palpitations, or irregular heartbeats (arrhythmia)
- Rapid heartbeat
- Extreme weakness
- Unusual fatigue
- Sudden sweating or a cold, clammy feeling
Any of these symptoms should be evaluated by a healthcare professional, especially if they are new, sudden, or worsening.
Risks of Heart Disease in Women
Certain factors can increase a woman’s risk of developing heart disease, including:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Diabetes (high blood sugar levels)
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Diet high in saturated fats and cholesterol
- Tobacco use
- Being overweight
- Family history of heart disease, especially at an early age
- Being 55 years old or older
- Menopause (being without a menstrual period for at least 12 months)