Overview

How much do you know about heart disease? As women get older, many worry about cancer. But did you know that heart disease kills more women each year than all types of cancer combined? 

When it comes to symptoms of heart disease, women may have different—and more subtle—symptoms from men. Because many women have different symptoms, women may not recognize the signs of heart disease before it’s too late.

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How Common Is Heart Disease in Women & Why?

Heart disease is the number one killer of women. In fact, about one in four women in the US will die from heart disease, making heart disease the leading cause of death for women. In 2013 alone, heart disease killed 289,758 women.

Here are some statistics:

  • In the US, 43 million women have heart disease.
  • Heart disease is the leading cause of death for white women.
  • Over 47 percent of African American women will develop heart disease.
  • More than 21,000 Hispanic women die each year from heart problems.

Millions of women are at risk for heart disease. But only one in five women know that heart disease is the biggest threat to their health.

More women will also die from heart disease than men. Although rates of heart disease deaths in men have been on a steady decline, rates of heart disease deaths in women have gone down much more slowly.

Why is this the case? Men and women have physiological differences in the size of their heart that may help explain why heart disease is so deadly for women. But there's another difference that's just as important: Women are less likely to think they're having a heart attack when they experience heart attack symptoms. Almost two thirds of women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease have no previous symptoms. (Coronary heart disease is a condition that causes blockages in the blood vessels that carry blood to your heart).

Studies also suggest that women may not take heart attack symptoms as seriously as they should. Alarmingly, just 65 percent of women say that they'd call 9-1-1 right away if they thought they were having a heart attack.

Research also shows that women have a higher chance of damaging the tiny blood vessel walls inside their arteries. Arteries help your heart pump blood and deliver oxygen to other organs in your body.

Menopause & Heart Disease

Older people in general are more likely to have heart disease. Your odds will increase after menopause. The research still isn’t clear, but changes in your hormones and metabolic profiles may explain why older women are more likely to get heart disease. Your metabolic profile includes your blood sugar (glucose) levels, electrolytes, and liver and kidney function.

During menopause:

  • blood pressure rises,
  • bad cholesterol (LDL) increases, and
  • good cholesterol (HDL) goes down or stays at the same levels.
  • Triglycerides—fats in your blood that can increase your risk for stroke—also go up.

What Are the Signs of Women's Heart Disease?

Now that you know your chances of developing heart disease, how can you spot the symptoms? The bad news is that compared to men, women may have more subtle and less recognizable symptoms of heart disease. Women's symptoms during heart attacks may also be harder to recognize.

What's the good news? The majority of women will have at least one well-known symptom during a heart attack—chest pain.

Some women show no signs of heart disease at all. This is called silent CAD or coronary artery disease.

So how can you tell if you may have heart disease?

Angina

One common sign of heart disease is called angina. Angina is the chest pain you feel when not enough oxygen-rich blood is pumped to your heart when you're exerting yourself. Anginas happen when your coronary artery has a partial blockage.

Women who have angina may have these symptoms, especially if they're stressed or are doing strenuous physical activity:

  • chest pressure or a squeezing feeling;
  • pain radiating down the arm;
  • sharp, burning chest pain;
  • shortness of breath; or
  • pain in the jaw, neck, throat, stomach, or upper back.

Heart Attack

Heart attacks are a life-threatening complication of coronary artery disease (CAD). They happen when your heart can't get enough oxygen because blood flow is blocked inside an artery that travels to a part of your heart muscle. If blood can't begin flowing to your heart quickly again, parts of your heart muscle start dying.

Women may have different symptoms during heart attacks than men do. These symptoms can include:

  • pain, pressure, or squeezing in the middle of your chest;
  • feeling out of breath;
  • being nauseous or vomiting;
  • or pain that radiates to your arms, jaw, neck, stomach, or back.

It's important to remember that some women may have a heart attack without feeling any pressure in their chest, especially women who have diabetes mellitus.

If you have any of the symptoms above and think you might be having a heart attack, call 9-1-1 right away.

Know Your Odds of Getting Heart Disease

Even though heart disease kills one in three women each year, the good news is that you can lower your chances of getting heart disease by as much as 80 percent by making healthy lifestyle changes.

Smoking, eating unhealthy foods, being overweight, and having high cholesterol levels or high blood pressure (hypertension) can increases your chances of developing heart disease. Diseases like diabetes and even PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) can also increase your odds of getting heart disease. But there are a number of things you can do to decrease your odds.

Stay Heart Healthy: Lower Your Chances of Getting Heart Disease

Eat Heart-Healthy Foods

New research shows that poor diet plays a big role in increasing your chances of dying from cardiovascular disease. What should you do? Make sure you eat these heart-healthy foods at least a couple times a week:

  • nuts & seeds,
  • vegetables,
  • whole grains,
  • fruits, and
  • omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish and seafood).

Monounsaturated fats (found in olive and sesame oil, almonds, and walnuts) are also shown to have a positive benefit for your heart health.

You should also eat less:

  • salt;
  • saturated and trans fats (found in fried foods, crackers, and margarine);
  • sweets and unrefined sugars (such as cookies, candy, white breads, and white pastas);
  • sugary drinks (like sodas, sweetened tea, and sweetened coffees and energy drinks); and
  • processed meats.

If it sounds too hard to cut out your favorite foods, focus on making an effort to eat healthier first. You don't have to give up cold turkey every food that's bad for you. Research shows that simply having more heart-healthy foods in your diet like nuts and seeds will lower your chances of dying from heart disease.

Think of your diet choices as a seesaw: You should aim to eat more heart-healthy foods and fewer unhealthy foods like salt and trans fats.

Exercise

One of the best things you can do to lower your chances of getting heart disease now—or when you're older—is to be active. Women should exercise 150 minutes each week—or two ½ hours. This can be broken down into 30 minutes each day.

To meet that recommendation, you don't have to slave away at the gym. Moderate aerobic activities that raise your heart rate like biking, swimming, dancing, or even brisk walking go a long way in getting your heart the exercise it needs.

Do Your Part to Prevent Heart Disease

Remember that heart disease is preventable! Making small diet and exercise changes in your day-to-day life can keep your heart healthy for years to come.