The Ultimate Guide to Heart Disease in Women

Heart health
Health Articles
May 16, 2019

How well do you know your heart disease symptoms? When do you need to seek help? Get the lowdown on heart disease in women.

Heart disease is the number one cause of death in women in the U.S., with one out of every four women dying as a result of the condition. And because the symptoms of heart disease in women are different from those experienced by men, misdiagnosis is not uncommon. Read on to find out everything you need to know about heart disease in women.

Symptoms of heart disease in women

By taking steps to understand the symptoms of heart disease, women can reduce their risk of suffering from heart attacks and other cardiovascular episodes. One of the key things to remember is that the crushing chest pain most frequently associated with heart disease is not always the most prominent symptom of heart disease in women. Some of the symptoms for women to pay attention to include:

  • Jaw, shoulder, neck, abdominal, or upper back pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Pain in one or both of your arms
  • Excessive sweating
  • Fatigue
  • Lightheadedness
  • Nausea

If you notice any of these symptoms, it’s important to get in touch with a doctor as soon as possible, even if you haven’t experienced the chest pain, which is often characterized as the main symptom of heart disease.

What are the risk factors of heart disease in women?

While some conditions or behavior affect women to the same extent as they affect men, such as obesity or high-blood pressure, there are some risk factors that may play a more substantial role in the development of heart disease in women:

  • Broken heart syndrome, also known as stress cardiomyopathy, takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or apical ballooning syndrome
  • Diabetes
  • Chemotherapy drugs and radiation therapies
  • Smoking
  • Depression and stress
  • Menopause
  • Complications from pregnancy
  • Lack of physical activity

If you suffer from any of these conditions, or have any of the traditional risk factors like poor diet, alcohol consumption, physical inactivity, or high cholesterol, you should seek medical advice on reducing your risk of developing heart disease.

Does heart disease only affect older people?

This is one of the biggest myths around heart disease in women, so it’s important to be completely clear: heart disease affects women of all ages. And even if you live a completely healthy lifestyle, there’s always the chance that you’ve been born with an underlying condition. Plus, birth control and smoking can boost younger women’s risk of developing heart disease by up to 20%, while older women have a greater risk that can be exacerbated by overeating or a sedentary lifestyle. Bottom line: heart disease in women isn’t an age-restricted phenomenon—it can happen to anyone, which only increases the importance of learning more about the symptoms of heart disease in women.

Could I be misdiagnosed?

Because the symptoms of heart disease differ by gender, misdiagnosis is a very real possibility. A raft of studies support this idea. For example, a study published in Circulation found that 61.9% of women present with more than three non-chest pain symptoms—almost 10% more than men. But more worryingly, 53% of these women claimed that “their healthcare provider did not think the symptoms were heart-related.” Recent studies have indicated that younger women may hesitate to seek advice for heart disease symptoms due to fears of being labeled as a hypochondriac, which doesn’t tend to be a problem that affects men so much.

If you take just one insight from this article, make it this: the symptoms of heart disease in women are not the same as the traditional symptoms we’re all familiar with. By gaining a solid understanding of potential symptoms and risk factors, you can manage your risk.