By: Article Written by Lishamarie Hunter

Heart disease has become the leading cause of death for women in the United States, responsible for about 1 in 4 deaths among women. Starting in the late 1980s, coronary heart disease – defined as a blockage of the arteries that supply blood and oxygen to the heart – has killed more women each year than men. Mortality rates from this disease are on the rise in women aged 35 – 54 years. Nearly two-thirds of women who have died from heart disease had no previous symptoms.

Some facts about women and heart disease:

  • Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States, killing 314,186 women in 2020—or about 1 in every 5 female deaths.
  • Heart disease is the leading cause of death for African American and white women in the United States. Among American Indian and Alaska Native women, heart disease and cancer cause roughly the same number of deaths each year. For Hispanic and Asian or Pacific Islander women, heart disease is second only to cancer as a cause of death.
  • About 1 in 16 women age 20 and older (6.2%) have coronary heart disease, the most common type of heart disease:
    • About 1 in 16 white women (6.1%), black women (6.5%), and Hispanic women (6%)
    • About 1 in 30 Asian women (3.2%) (2023)

Reasons Why?

Women have smaller arteries than men, so coronary artery disease develops differently, and more diffusely. Also, coronary artery disease in women tends to afflict smaller arteries that feed the heart. An angiogram, a procedure commonly performed to look for blockages in the coronary arteries, won’t always catch the signs of disease.

The last reason delays in getting care has to do with deeply engrained societal norms.

“Women by nature are conditioned socially and culturally to be nurturers,” Dr. Chinnaiyan explains. “We generally put ourselves last.

“A woman is more likely to take her husband, having the same symptoms, to the doctor, rather than taking herself” (2023).

Because women delay care it’s important for women to know the risk factors of heart disease: high blood pressure or cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, lack of exercise, poor diet and high stress. What are the common and the not so common symptoms of heart disease? These symptoms may happen when you are resting or when you are doing regular daily activities.

Some women have no symptoms, others may have the following:

  • Angina (dull and heavy or sharp chest pain or discomfort)
  • Pain in the neck, jaw, or throat
  • Pain in the upper abdomen or back
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue

Sometimes heart disease may be “silent” and not diagnosed until you have other symptoms or emergencies, including:

  • Heart Attack: Chest pain or discomfort, upper back or neck pain, indigestion, heartburn, nausea or vomiting, extreme fatigue, upper body discomfort, dizziness, and shortness of breath
  • Arrhythmia: Fluttering feelings in the chest (palpitations)
  • Heart Failure: Shortness of breath, fatigue, or swelling of the feet, ankles, legs, abdomen, or neck veins

What are the risk factorsfor heart disease?

High blood pressure, high LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, and smoking are key risk factors for heart disease. About half of all people in the United States (47%) have at least one of these three risk factors.

Several other medical conditions and lifestyle choices can also put people at a higher risk for heart disease, including:

  • Diabetes
  • Being overweight or obesity
  • Eating an unhealthy diet
  • Physical inactivity
  • Drinking too much alcohol

How can I reduce myrisk of heart disease?

To lower your chances of getting heart disease, it’s important to do the following:

  • Know your blood pressure. Having uncontrolled blood pressure can lead to heart disease. High blood pressure has no symptoms, so it’s important to check blood pressure regularly.
  • Having uncontrolled diabetes raises your risk of heart disease.
  • Quit smoking. If you don’t smoke, don’t start.
  • Discuss checking your blood cholesterol and triglycerides with your doctor.
  • Make healthier food choices and exercise at least 30 mins a day.
    • Limit how much alcohol you drink
    to one drink a day (or far less).
    • Manage stress levels by finding
    healthy ways to cope with stress.
    “You have to be able to work on it from early on in your childhood. It’s really hard to change in your 70s if you haven’t worked on it earlier in life’ (2023).
    It’s never too late to make changes so that you can live a longer healthier life.
    American Heart Month Toolkit 2023. 18 February 2023.
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