How heart disease differs between men and women
Heart disease is one of the most serious health concerns in the United States. It affects men and women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds and is the leading cause of death for both sexes. However, men and women can experience heart disease differently, and understanding the difference can save a life during a heart attack or other cardiac emergency.
Heart disease: a shared experience
"Heart disease" is an umbrella term used to describe a range of conditions that affect the heart muscle as well as the arteries and blood vessels that carry blood to and away from it.
Both men and women experience these common types of heart disease and often share similar symptoms:
- Arrhythmia: This disorder occurs when you develop an irregular heart rate or rhythm. Heart palpations are a common symptom.
- Coronary artery disease: The most frequently diagnosed type of heart disease, coronary artery disease develops when plaque builds on the walls of the coronary arteries, which are responsible for delivering blood to your heart. For many people, having a heart attack is the first sign they have coronary artery disease, but the condition can also cause chest pain.
- Heart attack: A heart attack happens when blood flow to your heart stops, depriving your heart of oxygen and causing heart tissue to die. Shortness of breath, chest pain, discomfort in the upper back and upper body, and nausea are some symptoms of a heart attack.
- Heart failure: Heart failure occurs when the heart cannot pump enough blood to sustain the body. Fatigue, shortness of breath, and swelling in the feet, legs, and abdomen might suggest heart failure.
In addition to conditions, men and women share certain risk factors for heart disease. Those include:
- Diabetes and metabolic syndrome
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Family history of the disease and genetic predisposition
- Heightened stress levels
- High blood pressure
- Higher levels of C-reactive protein, which may indicate inflammatory disease
- Older age
- Physical inactivity
- An unhealthy diet high in salt, saturated fat, and refined carbohydrates
Heart disease in women compared to men
Men make up a slightly higher percentage of people who die from heart disease in the U.S. across all races and ethnic groups. As such, many consider heart disease primarily a men's health concern.
Although women encounter heart disease less often compared to men, the disease still accounts for 30% of deaths in U.S. women, according to the American Heart Association.
Smoking and having high blood pressure and cholesterol are the three leading risk factors for heart disease in both men and women, but women face additional risk factors, including:
- Early menopause, which occurs before age 45
- Heightened testosterone levels before menopause
- High blood pressure during pregnancy
- High blood pressure during menopause
- A history of gestational diabetes
- A history of rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases more prevalent in women
Heart attacks in women reveal additional differences. Although women experience chest pain just as men do, they are more likely to experience subtle symptoms they may not immediately associate with a heart attack. Those include:
- Feeling unusually tired
- Nausea, vomiting, or indigestion
Another problem is a lack of awareness about how heart
disease impacts women specifically. According to research
Take action to lower your risk for heart disease
Regardless of which symptoms and risk factors affect women more than men, both sexes can take the same steps to protect their hearts. Consider the following strategies for maintaining better heart and vascular health:
- Eat a diet high in fiber and low in saturated fat, sugar, and salt. Avoid processed foods and stick with whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, lean sources of protein, low-fat dairy, and healthy fats from olive oil, nuts, and avocados.
- Exercise regularly. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity a week.
- Learn healthy ways to cope with stress.
- Limit alcohol intake.
- Maintain a healthy weight. A healthy diet and exercise can go a long way, but you may benefit from additional help from a dietitian or medical nutrition therapy program.
- Quit tobacco if you smoke. Research from the National Institutes of Health shows vaping and e-cigarette use also increase your risk.
- Schedule an annual physical to have your blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, and triglyceride levels checked regularly. You can also take the time to discuss your risk for diabetes and other conditions associated with heart disease.
Your primary care provider can be your heart's greatest ally. By helping you understand your risk factors, symptoms, and treatment options, they can ensure your heart gets the attention it needs to stay as healthy as possible.
Need help protecting your heart? Find a Reid Health primary care provider today.