Heart Disease in Females

Women's Health | | Natasha Weiss
5 min read

A lot of the information we have out there about health doesn’t always paint the whole picture. A lot of health advice and treatments lack inclusivity. This is partly because many scientific studies are only performed on males, leaving females without the research they need to make important decisions about their health. This is true for one of the most prevalent disorders out there – heart disease. Approximately 275 million women around the world had a cardiovascular disease in 2019. In 2020, one in every five deaths in the United States was caused by heart disease. What makes heart disease different in females? What prevention and treatment options are available? And of course – what warning signs should you watch out for?

Understanding Heart Disease

 Heart disease is a broad term used to describe several different types of cardiovascular conditions.

Some of the most common types of heart disease include:

  • Coronary artery disease (CAD): The most common form of heart disease can cause blockages in the vessels that supply blood to your heart, your coronary arteries.
  • Heart failure: This is when your heart doesn’t pump enough blood to meet the needs of your body.
  • Heart valve disease: An abnormality in one of the four valves that open and close to allow for blood flow in the heart, lungs, and blood vessels. This can cause blood flow blockages or leaks.
  • Pericardial disease: These are diseases that affect the sac around your heart, known as the pericardium. Pericardial disease is usually caused by an inflammatory disease such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, or an infection with a virus.
  • Heart arrhythmia: This is marked by an irregular heartbeat pattern.

Gender Differences in Heart Disease

 People often think of heart disease as something that mainly affects males, but females are almost equally as affected. In the United States, almost as many women as men die from heart disease each year. It is the leading cause of death for females in many countries. Although heart disease affects both males and females, it can manifest differently between sexes. For example, women are more likely to have disease in the small arteries of the heart, while males are more likely to develop blockages of major heart arteries. This difference is enough to make treatment more challenging for females.

Another study found that females were significantly less likely to be prescribed preventative medication for heart disease than males. Symptoms of heart disease can also vary between sexes. One of the biggest differences when it comes to symptoms is that females are more likely to have heart attack symptoms that are unrelated to chest pain.

Symptoms that are more common in women include:

  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Indigestion or heartburn
  • Pain in one or both arms
  • Discomfort in the jaw, shoulder, neck, upper back, or upper belly
  • Unusual fatigue

 Symptoms of Heart Disease

One of the biggest things to be aware of when it comes to heart disease is that sometimes people can go without signs or symptoms until they experience a major event like a heart attack or heart failure.

Sometimes even when someone experiences symptoms, it’s not clear that they are heart related. These are some possible symptoms of heart disease to have on your radar:

  • Nausea, vomiting, gastrointestinal discomfort
  • A fluttering feeling in the chest which is a sign of an arrhythmia
  • Swelling of the ankles, legs, feets, abdomen, or neck veins.

If you experience any of these symptoms please urgently seek out medical care:

  • New chest pain
  • Upper back or neck pain along with shortness of breath, sweating, or weakness
  • Shortness of breath that isn’t relieved by rest
  • Uncomfortable pain, fullness, squeezing, or pressure in the center of the chest
  • Fast heart rate with shortness of breath
  • Pain that spreads to the neck, jaw, arms, back, or shoulders

Heart Disease Risk Factors

 Although at times it can seem like heart disease strikes out of nowhere, there are certain risk factors that can increase someone’s chance of developing a cardiovascular disorder.

These include:

  • Age, risk for females rises sharply after menopause
  • Being inactive
  • Smoking
  • Stress
  • A family history of heart disease
  • Being diabetic
  • Having a metabolic syndrome or thyroid disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Low levels of good cholesterol
  • High levels of bad cholesterol
  • Obesity

Although some of these risk factors are out of our control, many can be prevented through lifestyle changes.

Preventing and Treating Heart Disease

Treatment for heart disease varies widely depending on the type of heart disease someone has. One common treatment route is called ‘cardiac rehabilitation’. This involves education around lifestyle changes to help people recovering from heart surgery, heart failure, or heart attack, and to help prevent future cardiovascular issues. Cardiac rehab usually involves a combination of counseling to improve mental health and relieve stress, education about dietary changes, and physical activity.

Other treatments for existing heart disease may include blood pressure medications, aspirin for people with coronary artery disease, and cholesterol lowering medications. Some of the most important ways to help prevent heart disease involve lifestyle changes.

These are some steps you and your loved ones can take to help care for your hearts:

  • Getting regular physical activity
  • Monitor your blood pressure
  • Limit alcohol intake
  • Eating a balanced diet with minimal processed foods
  • Avoiding smoking
  • Managing stress levels through things like therapy, meditation, and engaging in hobbies
  • Managing underlying conditions like diabetes and thyroid disorders

Knowing the signs and symptoms of heart disease can be life saving not only for yourself but the people around you. Although some types of heart disease are unavoidable, these lifestyle changes can often greatly reduce your risk of developing heart disease. If you have any questions or are concerned about your heart health, your healthcare provider can help support you and give you valuable information about your heart and overall health.

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