7 Myths and Facts About Heart Disease in Women
ByTalya Spivack, MD, Cardiologist—Virtua Cardiology Group
Director—Women's Cardiology, Virtua
Heart disease can only happen in men.
MYTH: It’s important for women to recognize that heart disease is no longer considered a man’s disease. The number of women affected by heart disease is on the rise and the statistics are staggering—it’s the leading cause of death in women in the U.S., killing 1 in 3 women. In fact, cardiovascular disease causes more deaths in women than Alzheimer’s, ALL cancers, chronic respiratory disease, and accidents combined.
Many risk factors are the same in both men and women.
FACT: Many of the risk factors for developing heart disease are the same in men and women. The most common factors include elevated blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, smoking, physical inactivity, obesity, diabetes, peripheral vascular disease, as well as a family history of heart disease. Family history is especially important if a male relative with heart disease suffered a cardiac event (like a heart attack or needed a stent) before age 55, and if a female relative suffered an event before age 65.
Women with certain diseases have a greater chance of developing heart disease.
FACT: Studies have shown that women who had gestational diabetes, preeclampsia or pregnancy-induced hypertension have approximately double the risk of having a cardiac event in the 5-15 years after pregnancy versus the average woman.
There’s no connection between heart disease and menopause.
MYTH: About 10 years after menopause, there’s an increase in cardiac events in women. The reason isn’t clearly understood. It’s thought to be related to decreases in estrogen as well as other factors like increases in blood pressure and changes to the ratio of "good" to "bad" cholesterol after menopause.
Heart disease symptoms are the same for both men and women.
MYTH: The most common symptoms of heart disease are similar in both men and women. These include chest pain or chest pressure when exercising (or other forms of exertion). Some people report feeling more winded or short of breath in the months leading up to a cardiac event. These symptoms should always be taken seriously—especially when they get worse with exertion.
However, women also are more likely than men to experience what are considered uncommon symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, extreme fatigue, or breaking out in a cold sweat. In addition, women are more likely than men to brush off their symptoms as nothing. As a result, women tend to delay medical care. It can’t be stressed enough: Anyone experiencing these symptoms should be evaluated immediately by a medical professional.
Lifestyle changes can decrease a woman’s chance of developing heart disease.
FACT: The best way for women to lower their risk of developing heart disease is by leading a healthy lifestyle. The American Heart Association promotes “Life’s Simple 7,” which are recommendations that help prevent heart disease in women. The “Simple 7” recommends the following:
- Get active
- Stop smoking
- Manage blood pressure
- Control blood sugar
- Control cholesterol
- Manage weight
- Follow a healthy diet
Heart disease can be detected through testing.
FACT: There are multiple tests that detect heart disease. A good first step is to see your doctor for a checkup and medical history review. He or she will talk to you about the factors that put you at highest risk, including smoking, family history of heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol. Those considered high risk will likely have further screening tests such as a stress test, which is used to detect underlying heart disease. People with a strong family history may be asked to undergo a radiologic test that detects calcium in the arteries that surround the heart. Individuals who are very high risk and experiencing concerning symptoms may be referred directly for a cardiac catheterization to both diagnose and treat serious cardiac disease.
Updated January 4, 2017