Secrets of the Female Heart
For women, both diagnosis and treatment of heart disease can pose special challenges.
Experts say women tend to fear breast cancer personally but think—even if they have heart-disease risk factors—that a heart attack will happen to someone else. In reality, heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States, followed by all cancers.
Many women don’t realize that heart disease can show itself differently in women than in men. While some experience classic angina—chest pain—just as men do, others have nausea or flu-like symptoms instead. That can make it difficult to diagnose.
There’s also a difference in the way male and female bodies handle plaque, which accumulates in arteries and can lead to blockages in blood flow to the heart. Doctors say that instead of a major blockage in one spot, women sometimes develop more diffuse buildups all along the artery wall. These elongated deposits can sometimes make angioplasty or coronary artery bypass graft surgery less effective.
Studies also show that women are more likely than men to develop dangerous conditions in the smaller byways of the arterial system, where they are more difficult to treat, rather than the major arteries leading directly to the heart.
During the childbearing years women get some protection from natural hormones, so on average they’re a little older when heart disease is diagnosed. And they’re more likely to have additional conditions, such as diabetes and hypertension.
Researchers are still learning about these differences between men and women. But what is clear is that women—especially those with known risk factors such as excess weight, high cholesterol, high blood pressure or a history of smoking—should consult their doctors to make sure they’re doing all they can to protect themselves against heart disease.
4 Steps to Better Heart Health
Anything that gets your body moving and burning calories is good for your heart, as is being careful what you put into your body. Here are 4 simple ways to keep your heart healthy.
- Be vigorously active for 30 minutes most days.
- Don’t smoke.
- Eat fewer fatty and salty foods, and more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish and poultry.
- See your doctor for regular physical exams—and if you experience chest pain, a rapid heartbeat or other troubling symptoms.
For These Symptons, Call 911
Studies show women are less likely than men to have the classic chest pain and more apt to have other symptoms, such as those listed in the last two bullet points.
- Chest discomfort that lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and then returns. It may be pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.
- Shortness of breath, often accompanying chest discomfort, but sometimes preceding it.
- Discomfort in other upper-body areas, including the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
- Other signs, such as nausea, vomiting, lightheadedness or breaking out in a cold sweat.