Heart Disease in Women: Gender Differences in Coronary Health

February is American Heart Month, and it reminds us about the importance of heart health. The heart is the organ that keeps us going day in and day out, but we don’t always pay it the attention it deserves.

Did you know, though, that heart disease symptoms in men are very different than the symptoms of heart disease in women, as are risk factors? Why is it so important to know about these gender differences when it comes to heart disease, and why are women at higher risk than men of dying from a heart attack?

Symptoms of Heart Disease in Women and Men

Many women think the signs of a heart attack are unmistakable, but in fact they can be subtler and sometimes confusing.

American Heart Association (AHA)

How do heart attack symptoms differ for men and women?

If you’ve ever seen a television character clutch their chest and fall over from a heart attack, these are the symptoms you’re most familiar with. They include:

  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Pain that spreads throughout the upper body
  • Irregular or rapid heartbeat
  • Stomach pain that might resemble heartburn
  • Dizziness and shortness of breath.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women, but it often goes unreported or untreated because the symptoms women experience are different than those men suffer. For women, the symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • Fatigue that lasts for several days
  • Anxiety
  • Dizziness or shortness of breath
  • Insomnia or sleep disturbances
  • Indigestion
  • Jaw or throat pain
  • Pain in the center of your chest.

Many American women are also more likely to minimize the symptoms they’re experiencing, or blame them on something else. Ignoring the warning signs of a heart attack also tends to lower the survival rate for women who are experiencing heart attacks — a survey published in 2012 found only 65 percent of women would call 911 if they were experiencing a heart attack.

Note that minority women may have it even worse. For example, a recent study showed that Hispanic women exhibited the same heart disease risk factors as white women who are 10 years older than them. Going through menopause can increase the risk even more.

Go Red for Women

February 2 marked this year’s annual “Go Red for Women” day — an event that asks people to wear red to bring awareness to women’s heart health. People have observed this event since 2004 to dispel myths about women’s heart health and raise awareness for the fact that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States.

In the 14 years since its inception, the event has raised millions of dollars for research into heart health, and funded programs like the Go Red Heart Checkup, which has helped more than 2 million women learn more about their risk for heart disease.

It has also helped increase the number of women who are willing to talk to their doctors about their cardiac health. They’ve found upwards of 90 percent of women who are involved in the Go Red for Women program have visited their doctor within the last 12 months. Without participation in the program, only about 73 percent of women visit their doctors.

Treating Heart Disease in Women and Men

Roughly 84 million Americans suffer from some form of heart disease, leading to more than 2,200 deaths every day. The treatment for heart disease will vary from case to case, depending on the severity of the disease, but can include:

Healthy lifestyle changes — Quitting smoking, reducing alcohol intake, eating healthier and exercising more can all help reduce your risk of heart disease. If you’re at risk for poor cardiac health, talk to your doctor before beginning any new diet or exercise regimen to ensure you’re healthy enough for that kind of physical activity.

Managing risk factors – Health problems like diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol levels, hypertension (high blood pressure) and possibly even breast cancer can lead to a greater risk of coronary heart disease. Even pregnancy can increase the risk of heart disease in women, because it puts additional strain on the mother’s heart.

Mental health maintenance — Stress, anxiety and depression have been proven to increase your risk of a heart attack. Heart disease and depression often go hand in hand — having one increases your risk of the other. Canadian researchers found patients who experienced depression were four times as likely to die in the next six months as those who were not. Eating disorders can also increase the chances of having a heart attack. Maintaining your mental health can help reduce that risk.

Medication — Medications to lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, prevent blood clots and treat symptoms may be useful in reducing your risk of heart attack or stroke. Blood thinners like Pradaxa or Xarelto are often prescribed for people at risk of heart failure, though sometimes over-the-counter anticoagulants like aspirin are recommended instead.

Hormone therapy — Studies have shown that utilizing hormone therapy for menopausal women can help to reduce the risk of heart disease.

Surgery — If you’re experiencing blood clots or clogged blood vessels that are affecting your cardiac health, surgery may be the only option.

Rehabilitation — Once you’ve had heart surgery, you will need to go through cardiac rehabilitation to ensure you heal well. This rehabilitation will also likely include healthy diet and lifestyle changes to prevent your cardiac health from breaking down again.

Care for Your Heart, So It Can Care for You

February might be American Heart Month, but taking care of your cardiac health is something you should do year-round. Take time to talk to your doctor about your cardiac health and see if you need to make any changes to your diet or lifestyle to reduce your risk of experiencing a heart attack, stroke, angina, or other cardiac event.