Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women – responsible for nearly 1 in every 5 female deaths. And while that scary statistic may not come as a surprise to some, more than 40% of women are unaware that heart disease is the greatest threat to their health. Recognizing the early signs of heart disease in women is a major key to developing a plan of action toward a healthier life.
Let’s explore the risk factors and signs of heart disease in women as well as some simple prevention strategies you can implement for a healthier life.
What is Heart Disease?
Heart disease, also known as cardiovascular disease, is a blanket term that can refer to a number of different conditions of the heart.
The most common types of heart disease in women include:
- Coronary artery disease
- Heart attack
- Diseases of the heart valves
- Microvascular disease
- Congestive heart failure
- Congenital heart defects
About 1 in 16 women over the age of 20 (6.2%) have coronary heart disease making it the most common type of heart disease in the U.S.
Risk Factors for Heart Disease in Women
Key risk factors for heart disease in women include high blood pressure, high LDL (low density lipoprotein) cholesterol, and smoking. Other risk factors include:
- Being overweight or obese
- Eating an unhealthy diet
- Physical inactivity
- Drinking too much alcohol
In addition, a family history of heart disease appears to be a greater risk factor for women. With these risk factors in mind, it is important to stay alert and recognize the signs of heart disease if they begin to present themselves in yourself or a loved one.
Signs of Heart Disease in Women
The signs of heart disease in women may include symptoms such as angina, pain in the neck/jaw, or pain in the upper abdomen or back. However, not all women with heart disease will experience these symptoms.
Other common signs and symptoms of heart disease in women include:
- Chest pain or pressure — for women, this can be a sharp, burning sensation
- Unexplained shortness of breath
- Extreme fatigue
- Pain radiating down the left arm or into the jaw
- Heart palpitations
- Swelling of the legs, feet, ankles, abdomen, or neck veins
- Pain in the neck, jaw, throat, stomach, or back.
Although these are the more common signs of heart disease in women, keep in mind sometimes heart disease may be “silent” until you have an emergency such as a heart attack or heart failure. If you have a sudden onset of symptoms and believe you are having a medical emergency, call 9-1-1 right away.
How to Prevent Heart Disease in Women
A major key to preventing heart disease in women is awareness. According to The American Heart Association, nearly half of women 20 years and older are living with some form of heart disease, yet only 44% of women recognize it as their number one health threat. If heart health isn’t a priority, it won’t improve which makes awareness the first step toward prevention.
Other ways to improve your cardiovascular health and reduce the risk of heart disease includes:
Lower your blood pressure — High blood pressure puts you at risk of developing heart disease, but you can’t know you have it unless you test for it. Have your doctor check your blood pressure and follow these tips to lower high blood pressure.
Maintain a healthy weight — Obesity is another risk factor for heart disease as well as diabetes. If you’re overweight, prediabetic, or already have diabetes, it’s important to lose weight to reduce your risk. By eating a healthy diet and getting ample exercise, you can not only experience weight loss but also help prevent heart disease by limiting other risk factors as well.
Exercise regularly — In addition to helping you maintain a healthy weight, regular exercise has many benefits for your heart. Cardiovascular exercise, in particular, can help reduce blood pressure, increase levels of “good” HDL cholesterol, and lower levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol. Additionally, greater cardiovascular fitness is associated with longer life, in general.
In addition to these tips, it’s important to quit (or never start) smoking and limit how much alcohol you consume as both are risk factors for heart disease.
Can you reverse heart disease?
Some heart disease can be reversed, to an extent. For example, with lifestyle changes, it is possible to reverse cardiovascular conditions like high blood pressure and cholesterol, reliance on medication, and avoidance of surgical intervention. However, damage to the heart muscle due to events such as a heart attack can’t be undone. This is why it is critical to implement prevention strategies before something like a heart attack occurs.
Treatments for heart disease
There are a number of different treatments and interventions for heart disease including medication, surgery, lifestyle changes, or a combination of these. For example, your doctor may recommend a medication like amlodipine to lower blood pressure combined with lifestyle changes. Or, for more serious cases, surgical intervention to repair or replace heart valves may be required.
Ultimately, your doctor will be able to evaluate your specific circumstance and determine the best course of action moving forward.