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Women and Heart Disease: What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

April 05, 2022
woman feeling dizzy, heart attack symptoms in women

“There is an assumption that heart disease primarily impacts men,” says Dr. Sabeen Chaudry, cardiologist, Baystate Heart & Vascular Program, “but heart disease is the number one killer of women in the US, causing one third of female deaths every year. That’s really a startling statistic and it underlines why women need to be informed about what causes heart disease and be aware of their personal risk factors.”

What causes heart disease?

Heart disease is caused by plaque buildup in the walls of the heart, arteries, and other vessels that supply blood to the heart and other parts of the body. This buildup can contribute to a number of disorders including heart attacks, strokes, blood clots, abnormal heart rhythm, and congestive heart failure. Where the buildup occurs determines what type of event is likely to occur.

“When we’re young our blood vessels and arteries expand and contract easily allowing blood to move freely,” says Chaudry, “But as we age, our vessels lose their elasticity as plaque accumulates and hardens. That can lead to obstructions and heart attacks or, if the plaque breaks lose, strokes and clots.”

What puts you at risk for heart disease may surprise you

Most people are aware of the following—and most widely-promoted—risk factors for heart disease:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Family history

“Because these risk factors apply to both men and women, they tend to get a lot of attention,” says Chaudry, “However, there are a significant number of risk factors unique to women that also deserve attention.”

These uniquely female and lesser-known risk factors include:

  • Excessive weight gain during pregnancy
  • Gestational diabetes
  • Preeclampsia
  • Pre-term delivery
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome
  • Systemic inflammatory and autoimmune disorders (i.e. Lupus and Rheumatoid Arthritis)
  • Menopause

“The potential risk factors for women is considerably longer than it is for men,” says Chaudry. “As we go through our lives and have different life experiences, the risk factors can add up, putting women at much higher risk for heart disease."

Chaudry urges women of all ages to regularly speak to their doctor about their risk factors. If you’re concerned with the number of risk factors that apply to you, ask if you should be tested.

“There are several simple blood tests and other assessments that can determine if you’re at increased risk for heart disease,” she says. “Be proactive in pointing out what your concerns are and asking what can be done to determine your risk. Remember, one in three women who die, do so because of heart disease.”

Signs of Heart Attack in Women

Given women have more potential risk factors for heart disease, it seems only right that they have more potential symptoms of a cardiac event.

Some of the symptoms commonly experienced by both men and women include nausea or vomiting; squeezing chest pressure or pain; shortness of breath; and jaw, neck and back pain.

Additional symptoms experienced by women include:

  • Unusual or extreme fatigue
  • Dizziness and/or fainting
  • Weakness
  • Strong feelings of anxiety
  • Pain or pressure in the lower chest or upper abdomen

Chaudry emphasizes that, for women, a heart attack is not always accompanied by chest pain. “Stay alert to these less obvious and lesser-known warning signs. And trust your gut. If something feels off, it probably is. If you’re experiencing unexplained symptoms, don’t dismiss them. You don’t need to have all the symptoms of a heart attack to have a life-altering heart attack.”

Take your heart health to heart

Learn more about how to reduce your risk of heart disease or schedule an appointment with the Baystate Heart and Vascular Program by calling 413-794-CARE (2273).

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