The doctors and staff at the MedStar Heart & Vascular Institute understand that women may face unique health challenges when it comes to heart care and preventing heart disease. In fact, one in two women will die of heart disease. Heart disease claims more women’s lives than cancer, chronic lung disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and accidents combined.
Women face more serious cardiovascular effects from diabetes, which is more common among women. Their risk for heart disease increases after menopause as their estrogen levels decline. Before that, estrogen provides some protection against the effects of high cholesterol, a common factor in heart disease.
Symptoms of Women's Heart Disease
Heart disease symptoms are different for women than men. They can be more subtle in nature and sometimes hard to identify.
For example, women rarely experience crushing chest pain. Rather, women describe a fullness or discomfort in the chest, isolated discomfort in the jaw, or pain in the left or right arm or abdomen. Women also experience difficulty finishing typical activities either at work or at home without extreme shortness of breath, and they often report feeling exceedingly tired.
Because many women brush off their symptoms as not significant or due to aging, they therefore, frequently have advanced heart disease, and are more likely to have a silent heart attack or die during their first heart attack.
Therefore, it is exceedingly important for women to understand the symptoms of heart disease and to know their risk factors. The following "ABCs of Women's Heart Disease Symptoms" should help identify the symptoms of heart disease in women.
- Angina: chest discomfort or fullness
- Blackouts or fainting
- Breathlessness: experienced during activities or waking up breathless at night
- Chronic fatigue: an inability to complete routine activities
- Dizziness: this can indicate irregular heartbeats, or arrhythmias
- Edema: swelling, particularly of the lower legs and ankles
- Fluttering heartbeats: palpations, rapid heartbeats that may cause pain or difficulty breathing
- Gastric upset: nausea or vomiting, unrelated to diet, indigestion or abdominal pain
If you experience any of these symptoms frequently (about once a day), see a physician—the symptoms are serious and should not be ignored. Keep notes about when the symptoms occur, what triggers them, and what, if anything, relieves them. It also is helpful to make a list of past treatment and all medications you are currently taking.
At MedStar Heart Institute & Vascular Institute, our cardiologists focus on women and women’s health care. We know that women need a specialized approach to their cardiac health, so our women’s cardiovascular program focuses on early assessment of your risk for heart disease and working with you to correct those risk factors. We believe that with the right care, you can largely prevent heart disease.
Heart Disease Prevention for Women
There are steps you can take today to prevent heart disease. Here are some ways you can stay healthy:
- Identify behaviors that contribute to your risk (smoking, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise)
- Ask your physician about your numbers (blood pressure, cholesterol, glucose, body mass index (BMI)
- Learn about your family history
- Discuss all of the above with your physician
If you discover that you are at risk for heart disease or are diagnosed with heart disease, the Heart Institute’s cardiologists will partner with you to achieve the best outcomes possible.
Heart Disease and African American Women
African-American women are at greater risk for heart disease than Caucasian women. In fact, the death rate from heart disease is 35 percent higher among African-American women than among their Caucasian counterparts.
Why? The medical community has no easy answers. The first step is knowledge and understanding of specific risk factors and how they relate to heart disease for African-American women. These may include:
- Two-thirds of all African-American women are either overweight or obese.
- The fastest-growing risk factor for heart disease in this country is more prevalent among African-American women than Caucasian women.
- Nine percent of Caucasian women between the ages of 45 and 54 have diabetes, compared to 15 percent of African-American women.
- The difference is even higher between the ages 55 and 64, where 15 percent of Caucasians have diabetes compared to 30 percent for their African-American counterparts.
- The death rate from diabetes is 167 percent higher for African-American than Caucasian women.
- High Blood Pressure
- Even a slightly high level doubles the risk of heart disease, making the heart work harder to get the job done.
- Twice as many African-American women have high blood pressure as Caucasian women, significantly increasing the risk of heart disease.
- Diet, lifestyle, and exercise all factor into high blood pressure rates.