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Heart disease in women: how to reduce your risk

Did you know that more women than men die from heart disease each year? women and heart disease In fact, the American Heart Association notes that heart disease is the number one killer of women each year. Unfortunately, too many women downplay their symptoms of potential heart disease or don't realize the problems they are feeling are related to their heart. Heart disease symptoms and risk factors for women are very different than for men. Many women think they don't need to worry about heart health until they are over 65 but this is simply not true - especially if there is a family history of heart disease. Women of all ages need to take their heart health seriously. Let's take some time to highlight common heart disease risk factors for women and learn how women can reduce their risk of heart disease.


Common Risk Factors for Heart Disease 

When you think of risk factors for heart disease, you likely think of high blood pressure, obesity or high cholesterol. Those are certainly common heart disease triggers but other health problems tend to play a role in developing heart disease in women. Diabetes and metabolic syndrome (high blood sugar, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and abdominal fat) each increase the risk of heart disease in women significantly more than in men.

Stress and depression tend to affect women's hearts more than men's. They also make it more difficult to follow a healthy lifestyle - increasing other heart disease risk factors such as lack of exercise and unhealthy eating. Low levels of estrogen, a common problem after menopause, is another significant risk factor of heart disease in women.

The most common heart attack symptom in women is some type of pain, pressure or discomfort in the chest. But it's not always severe or even the most prominent symptom, particularly in women. And, sometimes, women may have a heart attack without chest pains. Women are more likely than men to have heart attack symptoms unrelated to chest pain, such as:

  • Neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back or abdominal discomfort
  • Shortness of breath
  • Right arm pain
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Unusual fatigue

Reducing the Risk 

It can be surprising to learn how many different lifestyle and health issues have a direct impact on heart health. Here's the good news: knowing about the issues is half the battle. If you have the risk factors mentioned above, there are strong steps you can take to reduce your risk of heart disease. In fact, these lifestyle changes are good to take for your entire health:


The American Heart Association recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity at least 5 days per week OR at least 25 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity at least 3 days per week OR a combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity along with moderate- to high-intensity muscle-strengthening activity at least 2 days per week for additional health benefits. Examples of aerobic activity include walking, jogging, running, swimming or riding a bike. Muscle-strengthening activity can be weight lifting but can also be gardening, yoga, Pilates or classes that use light weights.

If you haven't been exercising regularly, start small - perhaps ten minutes a day - and build gradually. You should also make an appointment with your doctor to discuss your exercise plans and learn what's best for you.

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Reduce stress

While there is no direct link between stress and heart disease, chronic stress can cause a host of health problems that do result in an increased risk of heart disease. Stress releases the adrenaline hormone which makes your breathing and heart rate quicken. If you have high stress regularly, the increased heart rate can damage your artery walls and make your heart work harder than it should. People under stress also tend to choose unhealthy ways to cope - overeating and not exercising - which can cause additional heart disease risk factors. Good coping mechanisms are exercise, yoga, deep breathing techniques and massage. Learn more about tips to reduce stress in your life. 

Maintain a healthy weight 

Eat a diet that's low in saturated fat, cholesterol and salt. Substitute lean meats for dark meats. Add more fruits and vegetables to your diet. There are a lot of cookbooks and recipe resources out there for heart-healthy diets. Learn more about heart-friendly changes to your diet in this article: Eating a Diet Moderate in Protein-Rich Foods. 

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Quit smoking

Did you know that just one year after you quit, you’ll cut your risk of coronary heart disease by 50 percent? (Source: American Health Association) Smoking increases your risk factors for heart and lung disease, cancer and other problems. It's never too late to stop smoking and you'll reap the benefits of quitting almost immediately. Let us help you make this positive choice.

Talk to your doctor 

Talk to your doctor about your family history and any concerns about your heart. Ask about your personal risk for heart disease and what lifestyle changes your doctor recommends to keep that risk low. Visit our Heart Care page and use our risk calculator to help you prepare for the visit.

Need a doctor? Search our list for doctors right here in your community. 

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TOPICS: Heart care, Cardiopulmonary