Women and Heart disease facts

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Submitted by Dr T on December 6, 2010 – 5:30pm

I am a woman and still in my forties. Can I be at risk for heart disease?

One of the problems of medicine includes certain fallacies, such as that women are protected against heart disease before menopause. Symptoms related to coronary artery disease are not infrequently misinterpreted or even ignored if it involves a woman, whereas a man will receive the full Monty of a work-up.

It was not uncommon for me to perform a coronary artery bypass operation on a woman long treated for things such as “Hiatal Hernia” or “GERD”, or after she had undergone gall bladder surgery. Miraculously, all those symptoms would disappear once the blood supply to the heart had been restored!

The reality is that with a lifestyle that is ever more hectic, often combining a full time job with that of homemaker and single motherhood, women are part of an ever increasing risk group for CAD.

  • Worldwide, 8.6 million women die from heart disease each year, accounting for a third of all deaths in women. Three million women die from stroke each year. Stroke accounts for more deaths among women than men (11% vs 8.4%) with additional risk for CHD unique to women related to oral contraceptive use in combination with smoking.
  • 8 million women in the US are currently living with heart disease; 35,000 are under age of 65. Four million suffer from angina.
  • 435,000 American women have heart attacks annually; 83,000 are under age 65; 35,000 are under 55. The average: 70.4.
  • 42% of women who have heart attacks die within 1 year, compared to 24% of men.
  • Under age 50, women’s heart attacks are twice as likely as men’s to be fatal.
  • 267,000 women die each year from heart attacks, which kill six times as many women as breast cancer. Another 31, 837 women die each year of congestive heart failure, representing 62.6% of all heart failure deaths.
  • 71% of women experience early warning signs of heart attack with sudden onset of extreme weakness that feels like the flu – often with no chest pain at all.

Any woman can get heart disease. To make matters more confusing, women might not have chest pain. If they do, they might call it an achy, tight or “heavy” feeling instead of pain. The pain might even be in the back between the shoulder blades, instead of the chest.

Women might think these signs are no big deal because they don’t “sound” like a heart attack.

What are the signs of coronary artery disease in women?

The most important sign is feeling really tired–even if after enough sleep. Other signs of heart disease in women are:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Feeling sick to the stomach
  • Feeling scared or nervous
  • New or worse headaches
  • An ache in the chest
  • Feeling “heavy” or “tight” in the chest
  • A burning feeling in the chest
  • Pain in the back, between the shoulders
  • Pain or tightness in the chest that spreads to the jaw, neck, shoulders, ear, or the inside of the arms
  • Pain in the belly, above the belly button

Because of increased smoking rates women are increasingly exposed not only to the risk of heart disease but also increased risks of lung, breast and ovarian cancers:

Lung Cancer Risks for women vs. men:

  1. Female smokers probably have twice the risk of developing lung Cancer, compared to men.
  2. The No.1 Cancer killer in women is Lung cancer, not breast, ovarian or any other cancer.
  3. There is about a 30 % risk increase of breast cancer in smoking women.

If you are a woman, have risk factors associated with coronary artery disease, such as:

  • High cholesterol
  • (Central) Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Hypertension,
  • Smoking
  • African American heritage
  • Positive family history for CAD

Yes Virginia, there is a risk, your hormones will not protect you! Calculate your risk here:


What can you do?

Diet & exercise, if you smoke, stop. Easier said than done, but YOU ARE A WOMAN, YOU CAN DO IT!

Hope this helps,
Dr T


(Graph from: AHA You’re the Cure, http://yourethecure.blogspot.com/2009/12/heart-for-women-amendment-part-of.html)

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