Heart Disease in Women: Gender Differences in Coronary Health


This post was contributed to ConsumerSafety.org by Kate Harveston.

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 heart disease symptoms in men are very different than the symptoms experienced by women? The risk factors of heart disease are also different between men and women.

Why is it so important to know about these gender differences when it comes to heart disease? Why are women at higher risk than men of dying from a heart attack? We've compiled the answers to some of the more popular questions related to heart disease in women.

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.

The American Heart Association

Most people are familiar with these common signs of a heart attack:

  • 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

However, women often experience different symptoms than those of men. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women, but it often goes unreported or untreated because doctors and patients misinterpret the signs.

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

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 can lower the survival rate for women experiencing a heart attack. A survey published in 2012 found that only 65 percent of women would call 911 if they were experiencing a heart attack.

Hispanic women may be more at risk of heart disease. One study found Hispanic women exhibited the same heart disease risk factors as Caucasian women 10 years older.

Go Red for Women

February 7, 2020, 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. The event aims to raise awareness of the fact that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States.

In the 16 years since its inception, the event has raised millions of dollars for heart disease research and initiatives including the following:

  • The event has funded programs like the Go Red Heart Checkup. The program has helped more than 2 million women learn more about their risk of heart disease.
  • The number of women who are willing to talk to their doctors about their cardiac health has increased. Roughly 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

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. 1 in 4 deaths is related to heart disease in the U.S.

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 it's the best move for you.
  • Managing risk factors - Health problems like diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol levels, hypertension (high blood pressure) and potentially 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. Maintaining your mental health can help reduce your risk of a cardiac event.
  • 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.
  • 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 likely include diet and lifestyle changes to prevent your cardiac health from breaking down again.

If you've been taking the blood pressure medication valsartan to reduce your risk of heart disease, you may want to consult your doctor. Some valsartan medications have been recalled due to a cancer-causing contaminant. Consumers have filed valsartan lawsuits claiming the drug contributed to cancer diagnoses.

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. Discuss possible diet or lifestyle changes that can reduce your risk of experiencing a heart attack, stroke, angina or other cardiac event.