Heart disease isn’t just a problem that affects men. Women may be at risk for developing heart disease, no matter how old you are. Unfortunately, being female may also affect the level of care you receive if you have a heart issue.
According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), women are more likely to experience:
- Testing delays
- Treatment delays
This is because the symptoms of a heart attack in women are very different compared to men, explains cardiologist Angela Taylor, MD. And because of this, women are also less likely to recognize heart attack and heart disease symptoms and seek medical care.
Heart conditions deprive your body of the oxygen and nutrients it needs. They can raise your risk of:
Learning about heart disease in women will help you advocate for yourself and protect your health.
How Heart Disease Affects Women
Heart disease is the leading killer of women of all ages and races in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You’re more likely to develop heart disease after menopause. But younger women can also have problems.
You may have heart disease if:
- Your heart doesn’t pump blood efficiently
- A valve inside the heart doesn’t work correctly
- Your heart muscle is damaged
- Your arteries are narrow or clogged
Microvessel Problems and Artery Tears
“While women can certainly have blocked arteries, they have more problems than men with the very small vessels in the heart called microvessels,” Taylor says.
You may notice chest pain and other symptoms if you have microvessel issues. But the most common heart tests won’t pick up on the problem. Providers can do special tests to catch it, Taylor says.
Another problem women are more likely to have: A dissection, or spontaneous tear, of the heart arteries. This also causes chest pain. It’s common after childbirth and menopause-related hormonal changes, Taylor says.
“While these problems are relatively rare, it’s important for women to be aware,” she says.
Beyond Chest Pain: Signs of Heart Attack & Heart Disease in Women
While chest pain can be a symptom of microvessel issues and artery tears, you won’t necessarily feel it if you’re having a heart attack. Instead, you might notice:
- Shortness of breath
- Upper abdominal pain
- Pain in your neck, jaw, or upper back
Other heart problems might also cause:
- A rapid or pounding heartbeat
- Numbness or tingling in your arms or hands
- Pale or blue lips, hands, feet, or nose
- Muscle cramps
- Foot, ankle, or leg swelling
- Memory problems
- Varicose veins
- Cold feet and hands
When Should You Go to the Emergency Room?
If your symptoms come on suddenly, out of the blue, go to the emergency room right away.
If you’re experiencing symptoms when you exert yourself, like during exercise, visit your primary care provider or a cardiologist, Taylor says.
What Women Can Do to Improve Heart Health
These four tips can help you protect your heart and improve your overall health:
Know your Risk Factors & Improve Your Health
You may be more likely to get heart disease if you:
- Are overweight or obese
- Don’t exercise
- Eat an unhealthy diet
- Have a family history of heart disease
- Are post-menopausal
- Have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes
While you can’t control all of these, you can:
Lowering your stress level with exercise, hobbies, meditation, or yoga may also reduce your heart disease risk.
Time for a Checkup?
Annual physicals can catch heart disease early or prevent it entirely. We have primary care locations throughout central Virginia.
Make Time for Physicals
Annual exams and blood tests give your doctor valuable information about your heart and risk factors. If you have heart disease or a condition that increases your risk, medication or lifestyle changes may help control your condition.
Be an Advocate for Yourself
Your doctor may not bring up your heart health unless you do. Doctors are less likely to address heart health with women than with men. Only 40% of women surveyed by the Women’s Heart Alliance had a heart health assessment during a routine physical. If you don’t mention your heart health, your doctor might not either.
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