Women, know your risk, warning signs for heart disease

December 17, 2021 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health
Categories: Healthy Driven Hearts

Though heart attack remains the leading cause of death among men and women, heart disease is often mistakenly thought of as a middle-aged man’s disease.

One person dies every 36 seconds from heart disease in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart disease kills about the same number of women as all forms of cancer, chronic lower respiratory disease and diabetes combined, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

Yet, awareness of heart disease, particularly among young women, is on the decline, according to recent studies. A 2020 report from the AHA found that in 2009, 65 percent of women were aware that heart disease was a leading cause of death to women compared to 44 percent of women being aware in 2019.

The study also found disparities in awareness among women of color as compared to white women as well as women with lower income and education levels. Less than half of the women surveyed were able to identify the symptoms of heart disease.

Most heart attacks are caused by coronary artery disease, which occurs when plaque builds up in the arteries causing them to narrow and stiffen. A heart attack can occur when a piece of the plaque breaks off and blocks blood flow to the heart.

Men experience more traditional symptoms of a heart attack, such as crushing chest pain or pain radiating to the left arm.

Women tend to be different. Instead of crushing chest pain, women may experience chest discomfort that may feel like pressure, pain or fullness or even something as subtle as a bra feeling tighter than normal. Other symptoms of heart attack in women may include:

  • Pressure or pain in the upper abdomen/stomach
  • Upper back pressure, pain or discomfort
  • Arm, jaw or neck pain or discomfort
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cold sweat
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Lightheadedness, dizziness
  • Extreme fatigue

Women often chalk up the symptoms to the flu, acid reflux or normal aging. As a result, women tend to get care for heart attacks later, so they end up sicker with more complications.

Though a recent study indicated a slight decrease in heart attacks among older adults, it also found a sharp increase in younger women. The study examined heart attack patients from 1995 to 2014. At the start of the study women between the ages of 35 and 54 made up about 21 percent of heart attack patients. By the end of the study, that number jumped to 31 percent.

Experts suggest that risk factors — such as obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes — may also be increasing among younger women, putting them at higher risk for heart disease and heart attack.

To help prevent heart disease, consider:

  • Having annual check-ups with your primary care doctor to stay on top of your individual risk.
  • Adopting a heart-healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight and limiting alcohol consumption.
  • Exercising regularly. The AHA recommends 150 minutes of exercise per week (or 30 minutes a day). The 2020 report found that women are less likely than men to get in the recommended amount of exercise each week.
  • Putting down the cigarettes. Smoking is one of the leading risk factors for heart disease. The 2020 AHA report also found that women have a 25 percent higher risk for coronary artery disease compared to men who smoke. Just one year after quitting smoking cuts the risk of coronary heart disease by 50 percent.
  • Reducing stress and getting consistent quality sleep.
  • Working with your physician to manage other health conditions, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, that may put you at higher risk for heart attack.

Your heart is in good hands when you choose us for cardiovascular care. Learn more about our high-quality heart care.

Read this Healthy Driven Chicago article: Heart attack symptoms women can’t ignore

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