Preventing cardiovascular disease in women

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, and it affects women differently than men. Below, Kathy Glatter, MD, a cardiologist and electrophysiologist with Dignity Health Woodland Clinic, shares the types of heart diseases that commonly affect women, the risk factors to watch out for, and the steps you can take to lower your risk.Common heart diseases affecting womenAccording to the CDC, coronary artery disease, or CAD, is the most common form of heart disease impacting women. CAD is caused by plaque buildup, which occurs when excess cholesterol accumulates in the artery walls which supply blood to the heart. If left untreated, CAD can lead to a heart attack.
Heart failure is another serious condition that affects women more than men and occurs when the heart cannot pump enough blood and oxygen to support the rest of the body. Another common disease of the heart that can affect women is heart arrhythmia, which happens when the heart beats too slowly, too quickly, or in an irregular way. One of the most common forms of arrhythmias is atrial fibrillation (AFib or AF), which is an irregular heartbeat. When left untreated, patients with AFib have a greatly increased risk of a stroke.Risk factorsHypertension, commonly known as high blood pressure, poses a significant risk for heart disease, particularly among women. It is crucial to acknowledge that women with hypertension are often underdiagnosed and undertreated. This disparity is particularly pronounced for Black women. Untreated hypertension in women contributes to stroke, heart attack, kidney failure, congestive heart failure, and potentially dementia.“Several other medical conditions and lifestyle habits can put women at higher risk of heart disease,” says Dr. Glatter. “These can include high LDL cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, overconsumption of alcohol, a sedentary lifestyle, and having excess weight.”After menopause, women are also at a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease due to a decrease in estrogen, a hormone that helps protect the heart. Heart attack symptoms can be different in women“The most common sign of a heart attack in both men and women is chest pain or pressure. However for some women, no chest pain is present but instead they will experience profound fatigue, nausea, flu-like symptoms, and/or shortness of breath,” says Dr. Glatter. “Women are more likely to minimize or ignore their symptoms, leading to a later diagnosis of heart disease.”Chest pain can feel like a pressure or ache and can spread to the left shoulder and travel down the arm, elbow, wrist and/or hand. Dr. Glatter explains that the following symptoms can be more subtle and sometimes go unnoticed:

Pain in the jaw, neck or back
Shortness of breath
Nausea or vomiting
Profuse sweating
Dizziness or lightheadedness
Loss of consciousness
Anxiety or a sense of impending doom

If you are experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, especially if they last longer than a few minutes, call 9-1-1 immediately.Prevention Lifestyle changes and healthy habits play a key role in preventing heart disease and cardiac events. It’s important to maintain a nutritious diet high in fiber and low in saturated fats, trans fat, and cholesterol, which cause plaque buildup in arteries. You should also try to avoid excess sodium and sugar in your diet. According to the CDC, limiting alcohol consumption can also lower the risk of developing heart disease in women, who should consume no more than 1 alcoholic drink per day. According to Dr. Glatter, regular physical activity and sustaining a healthy weight are also recommended for avoiding heart disease and other cardiovascular risks in women. Key takeawaysBecause heart conditions can develop with limited or no symptoms, women who have one or more of these risk factors should be sure to discuss their risk with their doctor. Seeking early medical attention can help prevent heart disease and lower your risk of a cardiovascular event.If you are, or think you may be at risk for developing heart disease, schedule an appointment with your primary care physician. Our “Find a Doctor” tool can help you find a Dignity Health physician near you.

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