DENVER — For the longest time, heart disease was thought to be a disease only of men. 

Yet, one woman has a heart attack every 43 seconds, one woman dies from heart disease every minute and heart disease claims more lives in women than all cancers combined.  

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Even though heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States, data shows that only 56%  of women know that fact and awareness of heart disease in women is lacking.  Up to 80% of cardiac and stroke events in women may be preventable and the more a woman knows about her risk for heart disease, the better her chances of defeating it.  

So let’s talk about what you need to know.

What is different about heart disease in Women?

Heart disease in women is different than heart disease in men.  Women are not just “small men” and the symptoms of heart disease, the disease itself as well as the prognosis and complication rates are different in women compared to men.

  • Symptoms: Although our traditional concept of a heart attack is the classic image of a man having chest pain and clutching his chest, the truth is that a heart attack in women can present very differently.  The symptoms can be much milder and in many cases, atypical.  Therefore, a woman can have symptoms such as shortness of breath, dizziness, lightheadedness, abdominal pain, heartburn, back pain, nausea or extreme fatigue.
  • Anatomy and type of heart disease: Women tend to have smaller blood vessels than men.  Additionally, in men, the bigger blood vessels are more likely to have blockages, called “macro” vascular disease.  However, in women, disease in the smaller blood vessels called “micro” vascular disease is more common than it is in men.
  • Prognosis and Complication Rates: Because heart disease in women can have atypical symptoms, women have a higher chance of having a significant delay in treatment for heart attacks.  Furthermore, many of the trials that inform our decisions about which treatments to administer are based on research done on men.  Women also have a higher risk of bleeding complications after cardiac procedures compared to men.

What does a woman’s pregnancy say about her risk for heart disease?

Pregnancy is said to be the first “stress test” a woman undergoes in her life.   And sometimes, she fails that stress test and this can predict future risk of heart disease.  Conditions during pregnancy, such as high blood pressure (gestational hypertension), diabetes (gestational diabetes), pre-eclampsia or having a low birth weight baby can predict development of these conditions or heart disease later in life.  A woman can also have pregnancy-related problems in the pumping function of her heart (called peripartum cardiomyopathy).  These complications during pregnancy have now been formally added to the risk calculator by the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology to determine a woman’s risk for developing heart disease in the next 10 years.

What can women do to reduce their risk?

Knowledge is power!  The more you know, the higher the likelihood you can save the life of a woman you love (or your own!).

  • Know your numbers and your ABCs to minimize your risk factors
  • A: Avoid alcohol
  • B: Blood Pressure (should be <120/80)
  • C: (Quit) Cigarettes
  • D: Diet and Diabetes
  • E: Exercise (at least 150 minutes a week)
  • Know the symptoms and know that they can be atypical in women.
  • If you have symptoms, don’t delay… seek treatment early!

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