Spread the word: Heart disease affects women differently
[4 MIN READ]
In this article:
February is American Heart month – a great time to bring awareness to how common heart disease is in women.
Heart disease is common among men and women. In fact, heart disease is the #1 cause of death for women in the U.S.
We explain how heart disease impacts women and marginalized communities and provide ways to keep your heart at its healthiest.
February is American Heart Month – a great time to bring awareness to heart disease in women and ways to prevent and treat it. Did you know? Since 1984, more women than men have died from heart disease every year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the #1 cause of death for women. Yet only half of women know this fact.
Many people think of heart disease as a men’s disease, but it’s a women’s disease, too. What do you know about heart disease? Learn more as we dive into this condition and talk about what you can do to protect your heart. You can also check out our heart month resources, a curated list of podcasts, videos and articles about protecting your heart health.
What is heart disease?
Heart disease is a general term that includes several heart conditions, such as coronary artery disease (CAD) or blood clots. When you have heart disease, something in your heart isn’t functioning correctly. If left untreated, heart disease can lead to more severe problems (for example: heart events, including heart attack or stroke).
Heart disease affects women differently than men
People assume heart disease doesn’t affect women as much. But it’s not true – women often have heart disease, and 1 in 5 women die from heart disease. It’s important for women to be able to recognize heart conditions and seek treatment.
Research shows that because both women and healthcare providers assume women don’t get heart disease, they don’t recognize risk factors as often. Consequently, women sometimes receive fewer appropriate treatments, and fewer join clinical trials.
So, is heart disease different for women? Kind of. The male and female heart have the same structure and function. But the female heart is usually smaller with smaller blood vessels. These physical differences can make something like a heart attack different for women. We tend to think of a heart attack as someone clutching their chest in pain. For women, symptoms might be more of a dull pressure in the chest or shortness of breath.
Not noticing the symptoms of an event like a heart attack can make women wait longer to go to the doctor or emergency department. One study found that women were more likely to die of a heart attack often because of delays in getting to the hospital.
Heart disease also tends to show up seven to 10 years later in women than in men. Researchers think this is partly due to estrogen. According to the American Heart Association, the hormone estrogen can help keep blood vessels flexible and possibly protect the heart. After menopause, changes in the body, including a lack of estrogen, can increase the chances of heart disease. And, because women are typically older and their heart vessels are smaller, heart events are more likely to come with complications. It’s important to get treatment as soon as possible for a better chance of recovery.
Heart disease affects marginalized communities more
While heart disease is the #1 cause of death for all American women, BIPOC communities are more at risk for heart disease complications than white Americans, with higher death rates. For example, Black Americans are 30% more likely to die from heart disease.
There are many factors that add to these health disparities:
- Genetics: Some researchers found that Black Americans may have a gene that increases blood pressure more after consuming salt. Black Americans are also more likely to have a family history of heart disease. Hispanic women tend to develop heart disease 10 years earlier than other women.
- Healthcare access: Research has shown that many factors within the healthcare system can lead to fewer minorities getting the right treatment at the right time. Bias, access, insurance and culture all play a role.
- Other health conditions: Heart disease is often linked to high blood pressure and diabetes. Black Americans are 40% more likely to have high blood pressure than white Americans. Black Americans also often have higher rates of obesity, which can lead to heart disease.
- Socioeconomic factors: The American Heart Association has linked factors, such as lower income, less education and certain types of employment to negative effects on heart health.
How can I prevent or reverse heart disease?
There’s no one cause of heart disease, but there are risk factors that may make you more likely to develop it. Some include genes you inherit (and luck), but most of the risk of heart disease comes from lifestyle practices, including:
- Being overweight
- Drinking too much alcohol
- Eating an unhealthy diet
- Having diabetes
- Not moving enough
There are several ways you can monitor your heart health. And if you have an unhealthy heart, there are ways you can control and sometimes even reverse heart disease:
- Avoid smoking: Don’t start smoking or quit if you already smoke.
- Be active: Find time to exercise at least 30 minutes per day, five days a week.
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet: Try eating a diet low in salt and red meat. Many experts recommend the Mediterranean diet for heart health. It involves eating good fats – such as nuts, fish, olive oil and avocado – and avoiding foods high in saturated fat.
- Find healthy ways to cope with stress: Meditate regularly. Even finding time to laugh can benefit your heart.
- Know your numbers: Ask your doctor about your heart health. High blood pressure and high cholesterol can be silent killers that may not have symptoms until they cause a heart event. At your annual check-up, your doctor can look at your blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride (fat) levels to make sure they are normal. If they aren’t, your doctor may recommend medication or other lifestyle changes.
- Talk to your healthcare provider about your risk: Staying up to date with your yearly checkups and health screenings can help your doctor better assess your health and risk factors.
- Limit alcohol: Try limiting yourself to one drink per day if you drink alcohol.
Learn more from Lori Tam, M.D., the Medical Director of the Women’s Health Program at the Providence Heart Institute. In this video, Dr. Tam shares heart health tips and how heart conditions affect women differently. Watch the video now.
What questions should I ask my doctor about heart disease?
Your doctor can help you understand your risk for heart disease, know what symptoms to pay attention to and help you keep track of any health changes. Asking some of these questions can guide the conversation:
- What is my blood pressure? Is it high?
- Are my cholesterol and triglyceride levels healthy?
- Should I be tested for diabetes?
- Does my family history mean I’m more likely to get heart disease? What is my personal risk?
- Should I use aspirin?
- Are there any lifestyle changes I need to make? If so, how?
Talking with your doctor is a great way to educate yourself about heart disease – especially for women. The more you know, the more you can keep your heart healthy.
Providence heart institutes
The Providence health system has three award-winning heart institutes – Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, Washington, the Providence Heart and Vascular Institute in Portland, Oregon and Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, Washington. The institutes serve as places of innovation and deliver world-class healthcare to tens of thousands of patients each year.
Patients seeking care at Providence heart institutes will find the latest advancements in diagnosis, research, and treatment and surgery for the heart. Patients also have access to new therapies through clinical research trials, wellness and prevention programs.
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.