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What is heart disease?
Heart disease is a general term that includes many types of heart problems. It's also called cardiovascular disease, which means heart and blood vessel disease.
Coronary artery disease (also called coronary heart disease) is the most common type of heart disease in both men and women. It happens slowly over time when a sticky substance called plaque builds up in the arteries that supply your heart muscle with blood. The plaque narrows or blocks blood flow to the heart muscle and can lead to:
- Angina - chest pain from lack of blood flow
- Heart attacks - when part of the heart muscle dies from loss of blood flow
- Heart failure - when your heart can't pump enough blood to meet your body's needs
- Arrhythmia - a problem with the rate or rhythm of your heartbeat
How does heart disease affect women?
In the United States, heart disease is the number one cause of death in women. But women are often not diagnosed with heart disease as quickly as men are. That's because:
- Women are more likely than men to have "silent" heart disease, meaning that they don't have symptoms.
- Health care providers may not recognize heart disease in women because women's symptoms may be different from men's symptoms.
- Women are more likely than men to have certain types of heart disease that can be harder to diagnose.
A delay in diagnosis may mean a delay in medical care that could help prevent serious problems, such as a heart attack. That's why it's important to learn about your risk for heart disease, the symptoms in women, and how to keep your heart healthy.
What types of heart disease do women get?
Women can get any type of heart disease. Like men, the most common type of heart disease among women is coronary artery disease. But there are certain types of heart disease which are less common, but affect women more often than men:
- Coronary microvascular disease - Chest pain from spasms (sudden tightening) in the smallest arteries of the heart that pinch off blood flow. It typically happens during rest or routine activities. This serious condition increases your risk of having a heart attack or other heart diseases. This type may be harder to diagnose since blockages in smaller arteries can be harder to see on imaging tests.
- Broken heart syndrome - Strong chest pain or other signs that look like a heart attack. It's caused by the stress of powerful emotions, such as deep grief, anger, or surprise. It can happen even if you're healthy. It mostly affects women after menopause and usually doesn't cause any lasting damage.
- Variant angina - A rare type of strong chest pain from spasms in the heart arteries. The pain usually happens in a pattern during sleep. Variant angina rarely causes a heart attack.
Which women are more likely to develop heart disease?
Your risk for developing heart disease increases with:
- Menopause. Women can develop heart disease at any age, but your risk increases after your periods stop, usually by age 55. Before menopause, your body makes more estrogen (a female hormone) which helps protect against heart disease. That's why women generally develop coronary artery disease 10 years later than men. During and after menopause, estrogen levels drop and your risk for heart diseases goes up. If your periods stop before age 40, your risk will be higher than other women your age.
- Family history of heart disease. Your risk for heart disease may be higher if your:
- Mother or sister had heart disease before age 65.
- Father or brother had heart disease before age 55.
- Problems during pregnancy, such as high blood pressure, gestational diabetes, anemia, and high blood pressure.
- Use of hormonal birth control (pills, patches, or vaginal rings with estrogen and progesterone).
- Polycystic ovary syndrome.
- Inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.
- Metabolic syndrome.
- Mental health issues, such as stress, anxiety, or depression.
- Health risks from a lack physical activity.
- Obesity or being overweight.
- Low HDL cholesterol levels.
- Mild to moderate high blood pressure.
If you have one or more risks for heart disease, ask your health care provider for help understanding your risk level. Ask if you need any heart tests to help catch heart disease early.
What are the symptoms of heart disease and heart attack in women?
When women have symptoms of heart disease, they may include:
- Pain or discomfort in the chest that may be dull and heavy or sharp
- Pain in the neck, jaw, throat, upper belly, or back
- Nausea or vomiting
- Unusual fatigue
- Shortness of breath (feeling like you can't get enough air) during physical activity
Women who have coronary artery disease are more likely than men to have chest pain when resting or doing daily activities, rather than during exercise. They're also more likely than men to feel chest pain from mental stress.
Symptoms of a heart attack in women may also be different than in men. Chest pain is the most common symptom for both sexes. It may feel like crushing or squeezing. But women are somewhat less likely than men to have chest pain.
During a heart attack, women may feel:
- Pressure or tightness in the chest
- Pain in the upper back, arms, neck, jaw or throat
- Unusual fatigue
- Indigestion, heartburn, nausea, or vomiting
- Stomach pain
- Shortness of breath
Heart attacks usually don't look like the sudden, dramatic events we see in the movies. The symptoms may be mild or strong. They may start slowly. They can stop and then come back.
Can heart disease in women be prevented?
You can help lower your risk by:
- Learning how to prevent heart disease and making heart-healthy habits part of your daily life.
- Asking your provider about your personal risk for heart disease and the best way to manage your heart health.
Remember, women can have heart disease without symptoms. But if you pay attention to your risk for heart disease, you can take action to prevent problems or keep them from getting worse.
NIH: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
- Heart Disease (Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women's Health) Also in Spanish
- Heart Health for Women (Food and Drug Administration)
- The Heart Truth (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute)
- The Heart Truth for Women: Take Action to Protect Your Heart (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute) - PDF
- Heart Attack Symptoms in Women (American Heart Association)
Prevention and Risk Factors
- Heart Disease and Stroke (Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women's Health)
- Heart Disease in Women: Understand Symptoms and Risk Factors (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research) Also in Spanish
- Heart Disease Risk Factors (Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women's Health) Also in Spanish
- Lower Your Risk for the Number 1 Killer of Women (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) Also in Spanish
- Calcium Supplements: A Risk Factor for Heart Attack? (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research) Also in Spanish
- Healthy Recipes (National Library of Medicine) Also in Spanish
- Heart Healthy Eating (Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women's Health) Also in Spanish
- What Is Heart-Healthy Living? (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute)
- CHD's Impact on Females (American Heart Association)
- Heart Conditions and Pregnancy: Know the Risks (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research) Also in Spanish
- Heart Disease in Hispanic Women (American Heart Association) Also in Spanish
- Menopause and Heart Disease (American Heart Association)
Statistics and Research
- Women and Heart Disease (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
- ClinicalTrials.gov: Heart Disease in Women (National Institutes of Health)
Journal Articles References and abstracts from MEDLINE/PubMed (National Library of Medicine)
- Article: Using the cardiovascular risk profile in a community heart health outreach...
- Article: Alliance for Innovation on Maternal Health: Consensus Bundle on Cardiac Conditions...
- Article: Physical Activity versus Selected Health Behaviors, Subjective Physical and Psychological Health...
- Heart Disease in Women -- see more articles
- Heart disease and women (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- The Heart Truth for African American Women: Take Action to Protect Your Heart (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute) - PDF
- The Heart Truth for Latinas: Take Action to Protect Your Heart (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute) - PDF