Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States, causing 1 in 3 deaths each year. Yet many women may not be aware that heart disease is as big a concern for them as it is for the men in their lives. The good news is that an estimated 80 percent of heart disease can be prevented.
We talked to UNC Health cardiologist Ashley Lewis, MD, about what women need to know to keep their heart healthy and prevent problems down the line.
1. Symptoms of heart disease can feel different for women.
Women have similar symptoms of heart disease as men, but they may show up in different ways. For example, a common symptom of heart disease for both men and women is chest pain. In men, this symptom usually occurs with exertion or activity, but women often experience it at rest, in the middle of the night or when feeling stressed, as well as with exertion.
“Women also tend to have other symptoms such as shortness of breath, fatigue, weakness and heart palpitations (fast-beating, fluttering or pounding heart),” Dr. Lewis says. “Some women get tightness in between their shoulder blades and neck and jaw discomfort.”
Common symptoms of a heart attack in women include:
- Pressure or tightness in the center of the chest
- Shortness of breath
- Fatigue or weakness
- Unusual tiredness
- Neck or jaw tightness
- Unusual sweating
- Nausea or vomiting
- Sudden dizziness
2. Pregnancy complications can put you at higher risk of heart disease.
Women have the same traditional heart disease risk factors as men, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and a family history of heart conditions. In addition, women with a history of preeclampsia, gestational hypertension (high blood pressure) or premature labor before 37 weeks are at higher risk of hypertension and heart disease in the 10 to 15 years after their pregnancy. Also, early menopause—usually before age 45—is another risk factor for heart disease in women.
“We have recently started a women’s heart program that we do with the maternal-fetal medicine department, specifically targeting women who have recently had preeclampsia or gestational hypertension to educate them about their risk of heart disease down the road,” Dr. Lewis says. “We’re trying to catch these women earlier and educate them and make sure they know they need to be seen every year by at least a primary care doctor to check cholesterol and blood pressure and go over any other cardiac risk factors.”
3. Healthy habits can help prevent heart disease.
Even if you have risk factors for heart disease, there are multiple things you can do to lower your risk. These include:
- Exercise regularly to strengthen your heart and improve your circulation. Physical activity can help you maintain a healthy weight and lower your cholesterol and blood pressure. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (walking, biking, swimming, dancing) each week. If you’re doing high-intensity exercise such as running or a spin class, aim for 75 minutes a week.
- Eat heart-healthy foods and practice moderation. Choose whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and limit your sodium intake. Eating a diet high in saturated or trans fats (found in red meat, fried foods and baked goods) is linked to heart disease. Too much salt and alcohol can raise your blood pressure, which also taxes your heart.
- Control your blood pressure. High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease. Get your blood pressure checked at least once a year, more often if you have high blood pressure. If you have high blood pressure, take steps to reduce it.
- Keep your cholesterol under control. High levels of cholesterol can clog your arteries and raise your risk of coronary artery disease and heart attack.
- Don’t smoke. Cigarette smoking raises your blood pressure and greatly increases your risk of heart attack and stroke. If you smoke, quitting will lower your risk of heart disease.
- Watch your weight. Being overweight is a major risk factor for heart disease. Weight loss can help reduce blood pressure, among other benefits. “One pound of weight brings your blood pressure down one point,” Dr. Lewis says. “Ten pounds of weight loss and your blood pressure is down 10 points.”
- Get enough sleep. Most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep per night. If you don’t get enough sleep, it can increase your risk of high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes—all of which can raise your risk of heart disease.
4. Listen to your body and see a doctor if you feel bad.
Because women are traditionally the caretakers in their families, they often put off taking care of their own health. It’s critical that women don’t ignore symptoms and that they talk to their doctor about their risk profile.
“Most of us are focusing either on our children or our partners and therefore our own bodies come last, and studies show that women don’t get to the doctor soon enough,” Dr. Lewis says. “That’s why in the end, our mortality is actually higher because we focus on everyone else before we focus on ourselves. Women need to make sure they’re going to their doctor at least once a year to reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease.”