When most people think of heart disease, they think of men.
This isn’t a surprise, really—heart disease is the leading cause of death for men across most demographics, according to the Centers for Disease Control. However, most people stop at that statistic and forget to read the rest of the fine print: heart disease is also the number one cause of death for women!
Heart Disease in Women
Heart disease is just as much of a concern for us women as it is for men.
In fact, the ratio of women who die each year from heart disease is the same as men: about one in four. Despite this, barely half (54 percent) of women actually know that heart disease is their leading cause of death.
Where’s the disconnect here? If heart disease prevalence is roughly the same for men and women, why is heart disease considered “male” concern?
Typically, it has to do with the symptoms reported. Women don’t usually experience the same symptoms that men do. We often mistakenly believe that our heart disease symptoms are being caused by something else. On top of that, clinical research on heart disease has shown a bias towards men over the years—fewer women participating in trials means less research on the effects of cardiovascular disease on the female body, and less understanding of the differences between male and female-specific symptoms.
One particular heart disease concern for women is Coronary Microvascular Disease (MVD).
Coronary Microvascular Disease
Also known as small artery disease, this condition occurs when the tiny blood vessels around big coronary arteries become damaged and unable to deliver blood to the heart. This condition tends to affect women more than men. Researchers aren’t exactly sure why, but there is a known link between estrogen levels and incidence of MVD. Women with low estrogen may be at greater risk.
Signs to Watch Out For
As we mentioned, women are more likely to have different heart disease symptoms than the commonly-reported chest pain. The Mayo Clinic offers a nice breakdown of the main symptoms that women should watch out for:
- Neck, jaw, or shoulder pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Lightheadedness, dizziness, or fatigue
- Pain in one or both arms
- Excessive sweating or shortness of breath
Preventing Heart Disease
It’s important to be aware of possible heart disease symptoms, but knowing is only part of the battle. The above research from the CDC found that almost two-thirds (64 percent) of women who die suddenly from coronary heart disease showed no previous symptoms. Because of this, it becomes vital for women to understand what lifestyle factors put them at risk for heart disease, and what they can do to stop it from occurring in the first place.
Lifestyle factors that influence heart disease in women include:
- Inactivity – A lack of physical activity is a strong contributor to heart disease, diabetes, and cardiovascular damage in general.
- Diabetes – Diabetes contributes to heart disease in both men and women, though tends to affect women more significantly.
- Smoking – Like diabetes, smoking is a gender-neutral risk factor that tends to affect women harder than men.
- Pregnancy – The fluctuating hormones during pregnancy can cause high blood pressure or diabetes in women. This can contribute to cardiovascular disease development after pregnancy has ended.
- Menopause – Lowered estrogen levels brought on by menopause can hurt those tiny blood vessels around our hearts, contributing to MVD and cardiovascular disease in general.
Although the differences between male and female heart disease aren’t fully understood, there’s nothing confusing about the data. Heart disease hurts just as many women as it does men. Women should be aware of this and keep an eye out for specific signs that may indicate future heart trouble down the road.