Heart Disease in Women: How Common Is It and What Really Causes it?

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What Is Heart Disease?

Heart disease is an equal-opportunity killer. It’s the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States and worldwide. One out of every 2.8 female deaths in the United States in 2006 was from heart disease, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

But what is heart disease exactly, and how common is it? The term covers a wide variety of heart conditions, including the condition you are probably most familiar with: cardiovascular disease (also known as coronary heart disease or coronary artery disease). Cardiovascular disease narrows and blocks blood vessels and leads to chest pain, heart attack, and stroke.

AHA statistics show that in 2006, heart disease affected nearly 37 percent of the female population in the United States, or over 42 million women.

Heart Disease Statistics for Women

For women over 65, heart disease is the leading cause of death. It’s the second-leading cause of death for women from 45 to 64, and the third-leading for women 25 to 44. In the United States, in 2006, a woman died of cardiovascular disease every 1.2 minutes, according to AHA statistics.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that every year, twice as many women die from heart disease than from all forms of cancer combined. A woman is six times more likely to have heart disease than breast cancer. Most alarming of all, almost 66 percent of women who die suddenly from coronary heart disease have not reported any previous cardiac symptoms.

Heart Disease Risk Factors for Women

Some risk factors for heart disease are the same for everyone. These include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking and obesity, as well as sedentary lifestyle, poor diet, and other medical conditions such as diabetes. However, the Mayo Clinic points out that some factors play a more significant role for women than men.

Metabolic syndrome, a term that refers to the combination of abdominal fat, high blood pressure, high triglycerides and high blood sugar, has more of an impact on women in the development of heart disease. Likewise, smoking and depression affect women’s hearts more. Women also have the unique risk factor of lower levels of estrogen following menopause, which is significant in the development of blockages of the smaller arteries that provide blood to the heart.

Symptoms of Heart Disease

Heart disease symptoms vary according to the type of heart disease you may have. For example, with cardiovascular disease–stiffening, narrowing, or blockage of the arteries–you may have chest pain, shortness of breath, or your extremities may feel numb, weak, painful, or cold. Abnormal heartbeats can also give you symptoms of chest pain and shortness of breath, as well as a racing or slow heartbeat that you may or may not be aware of. You may have dizziness or lightheadedness and may even faint. Cardiomyopathy, which is thickening and stiffening of the heart muscle itself, can cause swelling of the extremities, distention of your abdomen and fatigue, in addition to irregular heartbeat, breathlessness, and dizziness.

Symptoms of Heart Attack in Women

You might be aware of the most well-known symptoms of heart attack: chest pain or pressure and pain in the left shoulder and arm. But the Mayo Clinic notes that sometimes these aren’t even the most prominent symptoms, and women are more likely to have more subtle heart attack symptoms that are not related to chest pain. These include discomfort of the neck, shoulder, upper back or abdomen; nausea or vomiting; sweating; unusual fatigue; shortness of breath; and lightheadedness or dizziness. Because these symptoms are not typically associated with heart attack, many women do not consider the possibility and wait too long to seek medical attention.

What Can You Do?

First on the list is prevention. Maintain a healthy lifestyle with a healthy diet low in saturated fat, salt, and cholesterol. Exercise at moderate intensity for 30 to 60 minutes a day most days of the week. Maintain a healthy weight. Don’t start smoking and quit if you do. If you already have heart disease, follow your doctor’s recommendations, which will likely include all of the above suggestions, as well as medical management of your disease.

Be aware of the signs and symptoms of heart attack, both typical and atypical, and if you think you are having one, don’t wait: call your emergency medical service immediately. Do not attempt to drive yourself to the emergency room. Remember that nearly two-thirds of women who die from heart disease have never had previous symptoms. It’s better to seek medical attention for your symptoms, whatever they turn out to be, than to dismiss them as unimportant.


American Heart Association: Heart/Stroke Update 2010


MayoClinic.com: Heart Disease: Definition


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Facts on Women and Heart Disease


MayoClinic.com: Heart Disease in Women: Understand Symptoms and Risk Factors