We often take our heart health for granted. When we’re young, it’s easy to pass heart disease off as something that afflicts only older generations. But it’s not always so.
In fact, heart disease is becoming more common at younger ages due, in part, to climbing rates of diabetes and obesity. We know women with diabetes develop heart disease at younger ages. And all women have a higher chance of heart problems after menopause.
Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of both men and women. Yet, many misunderstandings remain about how heart disease affects women. Learning about heart disease is one of the best ways women can protect their hearts.
All told, 80% of heart disease and stroke events could be prevented through healthy lifestyle changes. But women, in particular young women, are largely unaware of their personal risk or chance of getting heart disease.
If you are a woman or care for one, keep these points in mind:
Heart disease is not only a man’s disease
Coronary heart disease affects women and men alike, but women tend to have worse outcomes. For example, more women die of coronary artery disease than men and fewer women will survive a first heart attack.
Women surviving a heart attack also tend to have longer hospital stays and higher chance of death while in the hospital.
Heart disease kills more women than all cancers, including breast cancer
On average, 1 in 3 women will develop heart disease at some point in their lifetime compared with 1 in 8 who will get breast cancer.
Heart disease can happen at any age
While coronary heart disease is more likely to develop as we age, it can also strike younger women. For example, heart disease can happen in young women who have:
- Pregnancy-related complications such as spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD), a sudden tear in one of the heart’s blood vessels
- Coronary vasospasm, an abrupt tightening and narrowing of the heart’s arteries due to spasm in the muscle layer of the artery
- Premature narrowing of the heart’s arteries (atherosclerosis, plaque)
- Familial hypercholesterolemia, a genetic disorder passed down in families that causes dangerously high levels of LDL or “bad” cholesterol, generally LDL levels over 190 mg/dL
You may not be as heart healthy as you think
Most women – 9 out of 10 – have one or more risk factors for heart disease or stroke.
The good news is that many of these risk factors – such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, being overweight, or smoking, for example – are modifiable.
That means you can take steps to reduce your risk, such as giving up smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, finding ways to fit more activity into your life, and eating more fruit, vegetables and fish. There are also risk factors that affect only women.
Heart disease can look very different in men and women
Men are more likely to develop the “classic” narrowing or blockage in the coronary arteries, the blood vessels that supply blood to the heart itself, which can be detected with standard testing.
But women may not have the classic, isolated obstructive blockages typically seen in men, yet they still have reduced blood flow to the heart or suffer a heart attack.
For a long time, when no obstructive coronary lesion was seen, these women were told there was nothing wrong with their hearts. But we now know from research that this is not the case.
Symptoms of a heart attack can be and feel different, too
For some women, the first sign of heart disease is a heart attack, heart failure or a problem with the heart rhythm.
Because coronary artery disease can be silent or subtle, knowing your risk factors now and as you get older is critical.
Not all treatments are equally given
While there have been major advances in treating heart disease, women are less likely than men to receive potentially life-saving treatments.
Women are less likely to receive early aspirin, beta blockers and other guideline-recommended therapies.
They are less likely to undergo reperfusion and other treatments, and less likely to be offered preventive advice about how to make heart-healthy lifestyle changes. Interventions, including stenting or bypass surgery, tend not to be used as aggressively in women.
After a heart attack, women are also less likely to take part in cardiac rehabilitation, which can improve overall health, and prevent deaths and repeat heart attacks.