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Heart disease and women

Alternative Names

CAD - women; Coronary artery disease - women

Information

People often do not consider heart disease a woman's disease. Yet cardiovascular disease is the leading killer of women over age 25. It kills nearly twice as many women in the United States as all types of cancer.

Men have a greater risk for heart disease earlier in life than women. Women's risk increases after menopause.

Patient Education Video: Coronary artery disease (CAD) overview

EARLY HEART DISEASE SIGNS

Women may have warning signs that go unnoticed for weeks or even years before a heart attack occurs.

  • Men most often have the "classic" heart attack signs: tightness in the chest, arm pain, and shortness of breath.
  • Women's symptoms can resemble those of men.
  • Women may also report other symptoms, such as nausea, fatigue, indigestion, anxiety, and dizziness.

Patient Education Video: Chest pain

ACT IN TIME

Recognizing and treating a heart attack right away improves your chance for survival. On average, a person having a heart attack will wait for 2 hours before calling for help.

Know the warning signs and always call 911 or the local emergency number within 5 minutes of when symptoms begin. By acting quickly, you can limit damage to your heart.

MANAGE YOUR RISK FACTORS

A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or having a certain health condition. You can change some risk factors for heart disease. Other risk factors you cannot change.

Patient Education Video: Heart disease modifiable risk factors - obesity

Women should work with their health care provider to address risk factors they can change.

  • Use lifestyle measures to keep your blood cholesterol levels in the right range. Targets for cholesterol levels vary, depending on your risk factors. Ask your provider which targets are best for you.
  • Keep your blood pressure in a healthy range. Your ideal blood pressure level will depend on your risk factors. Discuss your target blood pressure with your provider.

Estrogen is no longer used to prevent heart disease in women of any age. Estrogen may increase the risk for heart disease in older women. However, it may still be used for some women to treat hot flashes or other medical problems.

  • Estrogen use is probably safest for women under age 60.
  • It should be used for the shortest possible period of time.
  • Only women who have a low risk for stroke, heart disease, blood clots, or breast cancer should take estrogen.

LIVE A HEALTHY LIFESTYLE

Some of the risk factors for heart disease that you CAN change are:

  • Do not smoke or use tobacco.
  • Get plenty of exercise. Women who need to lose weight or maintain their weight should get at least 60 to 90 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise on most days. To maintain your health, get at least 30 minutes of exercise a day, preferably at least 5 days a week.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Women should strive for a body mass index (BMI) of 18.5 to 24.9 kg/m2 and a waist smaller than 35 inches (90 cm).
  • Get checked and treated for depression, if necessary.
  • Women with high cholesterol or triglyceride levels may benefit from omega-3 fatty acid supplements.

If you drink alcohol, limit yourself to no more than one drink per day. Do not drink just for the purpose of protecting your heart.

Good nutrition is important to your heart health, and it will help control some of your heart disease risk factors.

Chest pain
When people have chest pain, they're often concerned they're having a heart attack. I'm Dr. Alan Greene and I'd like to talk to you for a moment about the different kinds of chest pain and when it may be an emergency. It turns out, there are lots of different kinds of chest pain. In fact, almost everything in the chest can hurt in one way or another. Some of the causes are really nothing more than a minor inconvenience. Some of them though are quite serious, even life threatening. You can have chest pain sure from the heart, but also from pneumonia. You can have chest pain from asthma. You can have chest pain from a blood clot in the lungs. It can be from nothing more than a strain of some of the muscles between the ribs, or nerves. You can also have chest pain that comes from acid reflux of from a stomach ulcer, gallstones. Many, many things can cause chest pain. You want to call 911 if you are having sudden, crushing chest pain or if your chest pain radiates into the jaw or the left arm. You want to call 911 if your chest pain also causes shortness of breath, or dizziness, nausea, or vomiting. You want to call 911 if you know you have heart disease and you do occasionally have pain but your pain is getting significantly worse than it is ordinarily. Or comes on with less activity than it does otherwise. But whatever the cause of chest pain, unless you're sure what's causing it, it's worth contacting your physician to find out what may be going on. It's not a symptom to ignore.
  • Eat a diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Choose lean proteins, such as chicken, fish, beans, and legumes.
  • Eat low-fat dairy products, such as skim milk and low-fat yogurt.
  • Avoid sodium (salt) and fats found in fried foods, processed foods, and baked goods.
  • Eat fewer animal products that contain cheese, cream, or eggs.
  • Read labels, and stay away from "saturated fat" and anything that contains "partially-hydrogenated" or "hydrogenated" fats. These products are most often high in unhealthy fats.

Gallery

Heart - section through the middle
The interior of the heart is composed of valves, chambers, and associated vessels.
Heart - section through the middle
The interior of the heart is composed of valves, chambers, and associated vessels.
Heart - section through the middle
The interior of the heart is composed of valves, chambers, and associated vessels.
Chest pain
When people have chest pain, they're often concerned they're having a heart attack. I'm Dr. Alan Greene and I'd like to talk to you for a moment about the different kinds of chest pain and when it may be an emergency. It turns out, there are lots of different kinds of chest pain. In fact, almost everything in the chest can hurt in one way or another. Some of the causes are really nothing more than a minor inconvenience. Some of them though are quite serious, even life threatening. You can have chest pain sure from the heart, but also from pneumonia. You can have chest pain from asthma. You can have chest pain from a blood clot in the lungs. It can be from nothing more than a strain of some of the muscles between the ribs, or nerves. You can also have chest pain that comes from acid reflux of from a stomach ulcer, gallstones. Many, many things can cause chest pain. You want to call 911 if you are having sudden, crushing chest pain or if your chest pain radiates into the jaw or the left arm. You want to call 911 if your chest pain also causes shortness of breath, or dizziness, nausea, or vomiting. You want to call 911 if you know you have heart disease and you do occasionally have pain but your pain is getting significantly worse than it is ordinarily. Or comes on with less activity than it does otherwise. But whatever the cause of chest pain, unless you're sure what's causing it, it's worth contacting your physician to find out what may be going on. It's not a symptom to ignore.

References

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Women and heart disease. www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/women.htm. Updated January 9, 2024. Accessed January 25, 2024.

Gulati M, Merz CNB. Cardiovascular disease in women. In: Libby P, Bonow RO, Mann DL, Tomaselli GF, Bhatt DL, Solomon SD, eds. Braunwald's Heart Disease: A Textbook of Cardiovascular Medicine. 12th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2022:chap 91.

Mora S, Libby P, Ridker P. Primary prevention of cardiovascular disease. In: Libby P, Bonow RO, Mann DL, Tomaselli GF, Bhatt DL, Solomon SD, eds. Braunwald's Heart Disease: A Textbook of Cardiovascular Medicine. 12th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2022:chap 25.

"The 2022 Hormone Therapy Position Statement of The North American Menopause Society" Advisory Panel. The 2022 hormone therapy position statement of The North American Menopause Society. Menopause. 2022;29(7):767-794. PMID: 35797481 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35797481/.

Virani SS, Newby LK, Arnold SV, et al. 2023 AHA/ACC/ACCP/ASPC/NLA/PCNA guideline for the management of patients with chronic coronary disease: a report of the American Heart Association/American College of Cardiology Joint Committee on Clinical Practice Guidelines. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2023:S0735-1097(23)05281-05286. PMID: 37480922 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/37480922/.

Last reviewed October 5, 2022 by Thomas S. Metkus, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine and Surgery, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD. Internal review and update on 07/23/2023 by David C. Dugdale, MD, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team. Editorial update 01/25/2024..

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