Heart Disease in Women

What is heart disease?

Heart disease is a leading cause of death of American women. More women die from heart disease than from cancer. There are many kinds of heart disease, such as:

  • Atherosclerosis. Fatty deposits called plaque may build up in the coronary arteries and make them narrower. The narrowing decreases blood flow to the heart. Plaque also increases the chance that blood clots may form and block a blood vessel, which can cause a heart attack or stroke.
  • Heart attack. A heart attack can happen when there are problems with the blood vessels that bring blood to the heart (the coronary arteries). In the first year after a heart attack, women have an increased risk of death. In the first 6 years after a heart attack, you also have a higher risk of a second heart attack. The risk is higher if you are older at the time of the heart attack and have other medical problems.
  • Heart valve problems. Heart valves direct the flow of blood through the chambers of the heart and to the rest of the body. A valve may leak or stop working because it is damaged by disease or because it was abnormal at birth. Valves that don’t work right make your heart work harder or damage your heart.
  • Abnormal heart rhythm. Your heart may beat faster or more slowly than normal, or it may skip beats. This can make it harder for the heart to pump enough blood to your body.
  • Heart failure. This means that the heart is not pumping blood as well as it should. It may pump at a different speed, pump blood with less force, or pump less blood with each heartbeat. When less blood is flowing out of the heart to the body, muscles and other tissues may not get enough oxygen. Heart failure is one of the most common causes of heart-related illness and death in the US.

You may also have problems such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol, which can lead to heart disease if not treated.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of heart disease are not the same for everyone, and symptoms can be a lot like symptoms of other problems. However, some common warning signs are:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath, especially with activity
  • Swelling in the legs and feet
  • Pain in your calf muscles when you are walking

If you pay attention to these possible signs of heart and blood vessel disease and get treatment, you may prevent a serious problem, such as a heart attack, later.

The most common symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • Chest pain or pressure, squeezing, or fullness in the center of your chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back (may feel like indigestion or heartburn)
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms or shoulders, or in your back, neck, jaw, or stomach
  • Trouble breathing
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat for no known reason

Along with these symptoms, you may also feel very tired, faint, or be sick to your stomach.

Just like men, chest pain or discomfort is the most common symptom of a heart attack in women. However, women are more likely to have back or jaw pain, dizziness, extreme tiredness, unexplained anxiety and nervousness, shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting, or swelling of the ankles or lower legs. Even mild symptoms can signal a serious problem.

Because you may not feel the typical pain in the left side of their chest, you may ignore the symptoms of a heart attack or pass them off as being tired or having the flu. It is important to call 911 for emergency help right away if you have these symptoms. Do not drive yourself to the hospital. Immediate emergency care improves your chances of survival and may help avoid damage to your heart.

How can I help prevent heart disease?

  • Take care of your health. Try to get at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Eat a healthy diet and try to keep a healthy weight. If you smoke, try to quit. If you want to drink alcohol, ask your healthcare provider how much is safe for you to drink. Learn ways to manage stress. Exercise according to your healthcare provider’s instructions.
  • Treat and control medical conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Get cholesterol and blood pressure screening tests as recommended by your healthcare provider.
  • If you are taking hormone therapy, talk with your healthcare provider about the risks and benefits. Hormone therapy may increase the risk for heart disease or stroke.
  • Talk with your provider about taking aspirin. Low-dose aspirin therapy may reduce your risk of having a heart attack, especially if you are at high risk for a heart attack, if you have had a heart attack in the past, or if you are over age 65.

You can get more information from:

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-09-05
Last reviewed: 2014-08-26
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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