Women and Heart Disease: What You Need to Know

Many women live in fear of breast cancer. But they often don’t realize that heart disease poses a much greater threat. In fact, heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death among American women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The chance of developing heart disease increases with age — and it goes up after menopause.* But women of all ages should take their heart health seriously. It’s never too early to take steps to help protect your heart.

Take charge of your heart health

You can’t change some things that put your heart at risk, such as getting older and having a family history of heart disease. Certain conditions, such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, may also raise your risk.**

But there are plenty of other things you can do to help keep your heart strong and healthy:

  • If you smoke, quit. Smoking has been closely linked to heart disease as well as a host of other diseases. Quitting is one of the best things you can do for your health. Talk with your doctor about products and support that may help you succeed.***
  • Get your blood pressure checked. High blood pressure makes the heart work harder than normal. It can also damage blood vessels. Have yours checked regularly — and if your numbers are high, talk with your doctor about how to get them down.
  • Control your cholesterol. Cholesterol is a fatty substance that can clog arteries and raise the risk of a heart attack. Ask your doctor how often to be tested.
  • Get physical. Regular exercise may help lower high blood pressure and high cholesterol — and help with weight control. Most healthy adults should aim for at least 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity physical activity a week. For safety’s sake, talk with your doctor before significantly increasing your activity level.
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet. Fill your plate with fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy. Choose lean meats and healthy fats, such as those found in olive oil, nuts, seeds and some fish. Cut back on added sugars, saturated fats and trans fats. And keep an eye on portion sizes.
  • Watch your weight. Extra pounds may lead to higher cholesterol and blood pressure levels. Help keep your weight in check by combining a heart-healthy diet with regular exercise.

Know the signs of a heart attack

Women often fail to recognize they are having a heart attack. And they are less likely than men to seek emergency treatment. That may be one reason why women are more likely than men to die from a heart attack.****

Some heart attacks are sudden and dramatic. But most of them start slowly with only mild pain or discomfort.

Common symptoms of a heart attack may include:

  • Discomfort in the center of the chest — such as crushing pain, pressure, squeezing or fullness
  • Pain that spreads from the chest to the arms, jaw, teeth, back, shoulder, neck or stomach
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat, fainting, or feeling dizzy or lightheaded

During a heart attack, many women do have chest pain. But they are more likely than men to have other or less typical symptoms. These may include upper abdominal pain, shortness of breath, coughing, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, weakness or what feels like indigestion. Older adults and people with diabetes may also have less typical symptoms without chest pain.

If you think you’re having a heart attack — or witnessing one — call 911 right away.

Call even if you’re not sure it’s a heart attack. Don’t wait for someone to drive you to the hospital. Emergency medical personnel can start treatment on the way if you need it. Minutes can make the difference between life and death.

What to do next

*Sources: National Institutes of Health; Office on Women’s Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

**Source: Office on Women’s Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

***Check your benefit plan to see what services may be covered.

****Sources: American Heart Association; Office on Women’s Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be nor should be construed as medical or other advice. Talk to an appropriate health care professional to determine what may be right for you.

Last reviewed June 2017