Heart disease in women

Did you know the warning signs of heart attack and stroke can be different in men and women? Women may experience uncommon symptoms that might easily be overlooked or ignored. You may also know that heart disease is the leading cause of death among women in the U.S.1

What are the signs of heart attack and stroke in women?

Knowing the signs of a heart attack and stroke women could save your life or someone else’s. That’s why it’s so important to be aware and take action to get help if you notice these signals.

Signs of a heart attack in women

Women might not recognize signs of a heart attack. If a heart attack happens and goes untreated, it damages your heart. You might think the main sign of a heart attack is chest pain — and it definitely can be. But heart attacks can also happen without any chest pain at all. It’s also important to know that women more often show symptoms when they’re resting or sleeping, compared to men. Signs of a heart attack in women include:2

  • Unusual and recurring chest, stomach or abdominal pain
  • Neck, jaw, shoulder or upper back discomfort
  • Nausea or indigestion
  • Shortness of breath (Difficulty breathing)
  • Unusual anxiety
  • More than usual weakness or fatigue
  • Feeling a sudden dizziness
  • Heart palpitations, cold sweat or paleness

Signs of a stroke in women

A stroke happens when your brain doesn’t get enough oxygen (blood). This can happen because of blocked arteries or when a blood vessel bursts and causes bleeding in your brain. Depending on where the stroke happens in your brain, how long it lasts and how severe it is, symptoms will likely vary.3 However, there are a handful of common signs of stroke in women. They include:4

  • Numbness or weakness in your face, arm or leg (especially on only one side of your body)
  • Confusion or trouble understanding
  • Trouble speaking
  • Trouble walking or loss of balance and coordination
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Unusual and severe headache

Am I at risk for heart disease?

The general risk factors for heart disease, like high cholesterol, high blood pressure and obesity are true for both men and women. But there are a number of other factors that put adult women of all ages at a higher risk for developing heart disease. This might look like a laundry list, but these are all important factors to be aware of — or change, if you can.5

  • Age: As you get older, you’re at a greater risk of having blocked arteries and/or a weakened heart muscle.
  • Gender: Women’s chances of heart disease go up after menopause. Overall, when compared to men of the same age men usually have a higher risk of developing heart disease.
  • Family history: If heart disease runs in your immediate family, you may have a higher risk of developing it.
  • Chemotherapy and radiation: Certain chemo and radiation treatments could increase your chances
  • Smoking: Did you know nicotine constricts your blood vessels? Or that carbon monoxide in cigarettes can damage their lining? Overall, smokers are 5 times more likely to develop heart disease compared to nonsmokers. 6
  • High blood pressure: Having high blood pressure means your heart has to pump against more resistance and overtime may weaken the muscle of the heart and thicken and narrow the arteries of different organs of the body. Fortunately, it can be spotted and treated with lifestyle changes and sometimes with the addition of medications.7  If you’re taking birth control, ask your doctor about its potential effects on your blood pressure whether they could increase risk of forming clots in the veins or arteries. And keep an eye on it if and when you get pregnant. A normal blood pressure level is < 130/80 mmHg.7
  • High cholesterol: This can lead to a buildup of plaque in your arteries. Cholesterol is a waxy substance and can clog them if your body has too much.
  • Poor diet: Things like sugar and fat, may contribute to the formation of plaques inside the arteries. So, if your diet is high in those things, you’re at a greater risk for developing a heart condition.
  • Diabetes and obesity: Heart disease has been shown to be more common among people with either one of these conditions.
  • Physical inactivity: Exercise helps strengthen your heart. If you’re not getting enough, it could put your heart at risk.
  • Stress and depression: Stress often makes other risk factors worse — plus, it can actually damage your arteries. People with depression have worse heart disease outcomes.

Can I prevent heart disease?

Heart disease is considered a lifestyle disease. That means it’s mainly caused from (and prevented with) lifestyle changes. Committing to a heart-healthy lifestyle could save your life.

How is heart disease treated?

The treatment for heart disease depends on which kind of condition you have. The three main options are often lifestyle changes, medicine or procedures. With heart disease, your lifestyle may be your best treatment. You have the power to form healthy habits that can help keep that heart of yours in good shape.8

Who can I see if I’m concerned about heart disease?

If you’re experiencing any symptoms of heart disease, visit your primary care provider (the doctor or provider you might see for your yearly physical). He or she will listen to your heart, check your blood pressure, and talk through your health history and risk factors. You may even get a blood test. Depending on how all of that goes, you might be referred to a cardiologist (heart specialist). Be sure to bring a list of your symptoms, family history and any medicines you’re taking.9

Footnotes

  1. Women and Heart Disease cdc.gov, 2020.
  2. Women and Heart Disease webmd.com, 2000. 
  3. Stroke Symptoms | American Stroke Association stroke.org, 2021.
  4. Stroke symptoms | Office on Women's Health womenshealth.gov, 2019.
  5. Heart disease - Symptoms and causes mayoclinic.org, 2021. 
  6. Smoking and Cardiovascular Disease | John Hopkins Medicine hopkinsmedicine.org, 2021.
  7. Blood pressure chart: What your reading means mayoclinic.org, 2021. 
  8. Lifestyle Changes for Heart Attack Prevention heart.org, 2015.
  9. Heart disease - Symptoms and causes mayoclinic.org, 2021.