Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women, yet it doesn’t get the respect it deserves.

Many women aren’t aware of their risk for heart disease, and research shows women are less likely than men with similar risks to receive preventive treatment and guidance.

“Awareness about heart disease in women is improving, but we still have a long way to go,” said Dr. Bradford Warden, chief of cardiology and executive director of Mon Health Heart & Vascular Center. “Too often the disease isn’t recognized until it’s too late.”

Close to 400,000 women in the United States die from cardiovascular disease every year – more deaths than from all cancers combined.

And in West Virginia, the rate of heart disease among women is double that of the national average – 7% vs. 3.5%, respectively – according to America’s Health Rankings®.

Yet, a 2017 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found 45% of women surveyed were unaware cardiovascular disease – which includes disease of the heart and blood vessels – is the no. 1 killer.

What’s more, only 4 out of 10 women said they received a heart health assessment from their doctor, and almost two-thirds said they sometimes put off medical visits because they wanted to lose weight first.

The study concluded women and their doctors often under-appreciate cardiovascular risks.

Without a comprehensive assessment, women may not be prompted to bring their cholesterol or blood pressure down to optimal levels, or make other lifestyle changes that could prevent a heart attack.

“Assessing cardiovascular risk should be a top priority,” Dr. Warden said. “Heart disease in women is not the same as heart disease in men. Women carry different risks than men, and their symptoms of heart attack are often different.”

How heart disease risks differ between men and women

  • Heart disease is more likely in women smokers than men smokers, and more likely in women with diabetes than men with diabetes.
  • Low estrogen after menopause also heightens a woman’s risk for heart disease.
  • Mental stress and depression affect the hearts of women more than men. This “broken heart syndrome” is caused by the sudden release of stress hormones during stressful events.
  • Pregnant women with high blood pressure or diabetes are prone to have those diseases long term, increasing their chances of heart disease.

How heart attack symptoms differ

While a blocked artery is the primary cause of a heart attack in men, that’s not always the case with women, according to a recent study published in the journal Circulation.

Instead of blocked arteries, Dr. Warden said, a heart attack can be caused by spasms of the arteries – or temporary blockage – which occurs more often in women.

“Heart attack symptoms in women don’t always include the classic chest pain,” Dr. Warden said. “That’s why it’s important to listen to your body and take chest discomfort, shortness of breath or any new symptoms seriously.”

Some key differences in symptoms include:

  • Chest pain is not as common in women as men. Women may feel chest tightness or discomfort rather than pain.
  • Women may have neck, shoulder, jaw, back, arm or abdominal pain.
  • Women are more likely to experience extreme fatigue, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, indigestion or shortness of breath.

“Because heart attack symptoms sometimes are not recognized in women, treatment is delayed,” Dr. Warden said. “Heart damage occurs before they get to the ER.”

The gender gap in heart disease has life-and-death consequences. Women are more likely than men to die within a year of a first heart attack, even after accounting for age, a 2016 American Heart Association report said.

Schedule an appointment at the Mon Health Heart & Vascular Center by calling 304-278-6562.

Emily K. Gallagher
Multimedia Coordinator
Marketing Department
Mon Health Medical Center
Morgantown, WV