Little Choices, Little Symptoms: Understanding Heart Disease in Women

Women are just as vulnerable to heart disease as men. In fact, heart disease is the leading cause of death among both genders in the US. For women, the symptoms can feel much different than they do for men. For example, only about 50 percent of women report having chest pains before or during a heart attack. Instead, women often experience less obvious warning signs, such as unusual fatigue or dizziness.

These seemingly little symptoms can signal a big problem. However, because women are generally focused on the health and safety of those around them rather than themselves, they often choose to ignore the more subtle signs of heart disease and heart attack. Making little choices, such as learning and listening to the “little” symptoms as well as seeking help could mean preventing a heart attack, getting earlier treatment for heart disease before it worsens, or getting critical medical care before it’s too late.

Know the Little Symptoms

In addition to chest pain and shortness of breath, which may signal a heart attack for both men and women, heart disease in women includes less-typical symptoms:

  • Severe weakness and extreme fatigue
  • Pain in the jaw, back, or neck
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat or experiencing lightheadedness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain in the center of your chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms or stomach

If you have any of these signs, call 9-1-1 and get to a hospital right away.

Choose to Know Your Risk

Risk factors are similar for men and women, but high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, depression, anxiety, and smoking are particularly strong risk factors for women. Knowing your total cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, and body mass index is essential. Other considerations:

  • Are you taking hormone replacement therapy? This may increase your risk of heart disease and stroke, and should be stopped at the first sign of heart trouble.
  • The number of risk factors you have multiplies your chances of developing heart disease: two risk factors increase heart disease four times while three risk factors increase it 10 times. 
  • One-third of all women ages 40 – 60 have one risk factor. Another third have two risk factors, and one out of every five women has three or more risk factors. 

Education + Little Choices

The good news is the more a woman understands heart disease, the better chance she has of beating it. Some 80 percent of cardiac and stroke events may be prevented by learning about heart disease and taking steps to improve your heart health, according to the American Heart Association. It’s also important to make healthy lifestyle choices, including: