What Every Woman Should Know about Heart Health

February 21, 2024 at 11:10 a.m.
Because symptoms in women can differ from those in men, it may be more difficult to spot the signs
Because symptoms in women can differ from those in men, it may be more difficult to spot the signs

...by Dr. Kristina Petsas, chief medical officer, UnitedHealthcare, Washington

Heart disease is often thought to be more of a health issue affecting men. However, it’s the most common cause of death for women in the United States, causing more than 310,000 deaths in 2021. Because symptoms in women can differ from those in men, it may be more difficult to spot the signs.
Heart disease symptoms for women
Symptoms may include common signs like pressure in the chest, which is similar for both men and women. However, women are more likely than men to experience a variety of other symptoms. This may be because women tend to have blockages in smaller arteries, as well as their main arteries. This is a condition called small vessel heart disease or coronary microvascular disease.
Symptoms include:
  • Pain or discomfort in the neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back, abdomen or back
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Lightheadedness
  • Unusual fatigue
You may not experience any symptoms if your heart disease is “silent.” This could mean you may not be diagnosed until you experience more severe symptoms, such as:
  • Heart attack
  • Arrhythmia
  • Heart failure
If you experience any of these symptoms, call 911 right away.
Help lower your risks of heart disease
While there may be risk factors you can’t control, a heart-healthy lifestyle is one way to help make an impact. In fact, studies show that healthy choices have resulted in 330 fewer women dying from heart disease per day.
Consider these changes to help lower your risk:
1. Quit smoking: Smoking damages the heart and blood vessels, which may cause heart disease (pdf). Even long-time smokers may see rapid health improvements and reduce their heart attack risk if they quit.
2. Exercise regularly: The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends adults get at least 150 minutes each week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes each week of vigorous aerobic activity. You should consult your physician before beginning any exercise program.
3. Eat healthier: A diet emphasizing fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish and nuts may help control your weight, cholesterol and blood pressure. Limit saturated fats, trans fats, sodium, sweets and sugary beverages.
4. Manage your stress: The most common types of stress that can impact your heart include workplace stress, financial stress, caregiver stress and disaster-related stress. Sleep, exercise and meditative breathing can all help ease stress.
5. Limit alcohol: The AHA recommends that if you drink alcohol at all, it should be in moderation, which means consuming an average of at most one drink per day for women. Excessive drinking may lead to increased heart health risks.
6. Monitor your blood pressure: Blood pressure numbers of less than 120/88 mm Hg are considered within the normal range. If your numbers are outside of the normal range, home blood pressure monitoring may be beneficial to help keep tabs on your health, but don’t substitute it for regular visits with your doctor.
7. Manage your blood sugar and lower cholesterol: Over time, high blood sugar can damage blood vessels and the nerves that control your heart. High levels of cholesterol can also increase your risk of heart disease through the development of fatty deposits in your blood vessels.
Don’t wait for the symptoms to appear – take preventable action to help maintain your heart health.

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