Women of all ages should listen to their hearts for more reasons than you may think.
Women are more likely to experience testing and treatment delays and misdiagnoses during hospital and doctor visits, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI). They’re also less likely to recognize symptoms of heart disease or a heart attack and to seek medical attention for those symptoms.
Learning about heart health and advocating for yourself if you have heart disease symptoms or risk factors will help you better protect your health.
How Heart Disease Affects Women
Heart disease is the leading killer of women of all ages and races in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although the likelihood of developing the disease increases after menopause, younger women can also suffer from heart issues.
You may be diagnosed with heart disease if your heart doesn’t pump blood efficiently, a valve inside the heart doesn’t work correctly, your heart muscle is damaged, or your arteries are narrow or clogged. Heart conditions deprive your body of the oxygen and nutrients it needs. Heart disease can raise your risk of heart attack, stroke, blood clots, heart failure and peripheral artery disease.
Symptoms of heart disease may include:
- Shortness of breath
- Reduced stamina
- Chest pain
- Palpitations or rapid heartbeat
- Numbness or tingling in your arms or hands
- Pale or blue lips, hands, feet or nose
- Muscle cramps
- Foot, ankle or leg swelling
- Memory problems
- Varicose veins
- Abdominal pain
- Cold feet and hands
Signs of Heart Attack in Women
Women tend to experience different heart attack symptoms than men and don’t necessarily experience the telltale sign of a heart attack like you see in the movies – crushing chest pain. If you’re having a heart attack, you may or may not feel pain in the left side of your chest or your left arm. Women often report feeling dizzy, nauseated or tired when having a heart attack. Other symptoms can include shortness of breath, indigestion, upper abdominal pain, fainting, or pain in your neck, jaw or upper back. If you have any of these symptoms, get someone to take you to the hospital or call 911 immediately.
What Women Can Do to Improve Heart Health
These four tips can help you protect your heart and improve your overall health:
- Know your risk factors. You may be more likely to develop heart disease if you smoke, are overweight or obese, don’t exercise or eat a healthy diet, have a family history of heart disease, are post-menopausal, or have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes.
- Make time for physicals. Annual exams and blood tests give your doctor valuable information about your heart and risk factors. If you’re diagnosed with heart disease or have a condition that increases your heart disease risk, medication or lifestyle changes may help control your condition.
- Be an advocate for yourself. Your doctor may not bring up your heart health unless you do – doctors are less likely to address heart health with women than with men. Only 40% of women surveyed by the Women’s Heart Alliance had a heart health assessment during a routine physical. If you don’t mention your heart health, your doctor might not either.
- Take steps to improve your health. Exercising more, following a healthy diet, losing weight and quitting smoking are simple ways to protect your heart. Lowering your stress level with exercise, hobbies, meditation or yoga may also reduce your heart disease risk.
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Date Last Reviewed: December 17, 2020
Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor
Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD