Although heart disease affects more than 26 million people in the United States1, many women do not realize that they are at risk. In a recent study sponsored by the American Heart Association, only about half of the women surveyed correctly identified heart disease as the number one cause of death for women.2 In addition to traditional risk factors, certain medications, pregnancy-related disorders and common medical conditions can all predispose women to heart disease.
Unique Risk Factors
High blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking and diabetes are major heart disease risk factors for both men and women. A number of medications that many women use, however, have been linked to high blood pressure. Birth control pills, other hormonal therapies, migraine medications and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, including ibuprofen and naproxen, can all increase blood pressure and may raise heart disease risk.
Another potential risk factor unique to women is pregnancy-related high blood pressure. Women with a history of preeclampsia, for instance, are twice as likely to develop heart disease as their peers.6 Gestational diabetes, or high blood sugar during pregnancy, increases the risk of heart disease later in life as well.
Thyroid disorders are more common among women than men and can also to lead to cardiovascular disease. If left untreated, an overactive thyroid, or hyperthyroidism, can cause abnormal heart rhythms and even heart failure. A sluggish thyroid, or hypothyroidism, on the other hand, can result in high cholesterol which increases heart attack risk.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), many women with heart disease don’t experience typical symptoms.3 Nevertheless, as with men, heart disease symptoms common among women include chest discomfort and trouble breathing. Women may also be more likely to experience jaw, throat or neck pain during a heart attack. Unusual fatigue, unexplained nausea, palpitations and swelling in the legs can also reflect an underlying heart condition.
Tips for Preventing Heart Disease
Because women may not have obvious heart disease symptoms, regular screening for risk factors is especially important. Making sure blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels are all under control can go a long way towards reducing heart disease risk. In addition, the American Heart Association recommends:
- a low-sodium diet with an emphasis on fruits and vegetables to help keep high blood pressure in check
- thirty minutes of moderate exercise on most days of the week to maintain a healthy weight
- quitting smoking and avoiding exposure to secondhand smoke
- limiting alcohol to no more than one drink per day for women (and two drinks per day for men)
Working closely with your health care provider to determine your risk of heart disease can prevent serious complications. Be sure to discuss any medications you take, including over-the-counter drugs and dietary supplements, with your provider. Plus, don’t be shy about asking for guidance regarding a healthy eating and exercise plan. Keep in mind that while heart disease is common, it is also preventable and treatable.
1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Heart Disease. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/heart-disease.htm
2. Mosca L, Mochari-Greenberger H, Dolor RJ, et al. Twelve-year follow-up of American women’s awareness of cardiovascular disease risk and barriers to heart health. Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality Outcomes. 2010;3:120-127.
3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Women and Heart Disease Fact Sheet. http://www.cdc.gov/dhdsp/data_statistics/fact_sheets/fs_women_heart.htm
4. Chasan-Taber L, Willett WC, Manson JE, et al. Prospective study of oral contraceptives and hypertension among women in the United States. Circulation. 1996;94:483-489.
5. Sesso HD, Cook NR, Buring JE, et al. Alcohol consumption and the risk of hypertension in men and women. Hypertension. 2008;51:1080-1087.
6. Mosca L, Benjamin EJ, Berra K, et al. Effectiveness-based guidelines for the prevention of cardiovascular disease in women-2011 Update. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 2011;57:1404-1423.