by DR. JOY JACKSON
The predominantly held belief that heart disease mostly affects men is a misconception. Contrary to this notion, statistics reveal that heart disease stands as the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. Women comprise 40% of heart disease-related deaths in Polk County as of 2022. These numbers underscore heart disease as a serious threat to women’s health.
Heart disease doesn’t discriminate based on gender, but it does manifest differently in women compared to men. The knowledge of how heart disease presents in women equips everyone to participate in early prevention and detection of heart issues.
Chest pain, a classic symptom, is experienced by both men and women prior to a heart attack. But chest pain does not typically manifest itself as severely in women. Women describe chest pain more like chest pressure or tightness—sometimes, they don’t experience chest pain or any chest pressure at all before a heart attack. Outside chest pain, women may experience a range of other less noticeable symptoms prior to a heart attack. They include pain in the jaw, throat, neck, or abdomen; shortness of breath; pain in one or both arms; nausea or vomiting; sweating; lightheadedness; abnormal fatigue; or heartburn.
A reason for varied and subtle heart attack symptoms in women is because women are more prone to microvascular diseases, which impacts the smaller arteries of the heart. Women are more likely to have a heart attack without having severe blockages in their arteries.
Women also experience symptoms of heart attacks more often when they’re at rest or sleeping. Stress and depression impact women’s hearts more than men’s, and stress has been known to contribute to heart attacks in women. While several risk factors for heart disease (i.e. high cholesterol, obesity, and high blood pressure) remain the same for men and women, it’s important to note that others such as diabetes, smoking, and family history of early heart disease are more likely to result in heart disease for women compared to men.
Due to the differences in how heart disease presents itself in women, there is risk of underdiagnosis and delayed treatment. Understanding these differences is crucial for the prevention and detection of heart problems.
These strategies are important in preventing and reducing the risk of heart disease and its complications:
Lifestyle Changes: Encouraging heart-healthy habits is the basis of prevention. Women should adopt a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. Regular physical activity is also important, and at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week is recommended. Limiting alcohol and quitting smoking are also part of preventing heart-related issues down the line.
Regular Health Check-ups: Routine health check-ups are vital in detecting potential risk factors for heart disease. Blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and blood sugar should be monitored regularly.
Awareness and Education: Empowering people with knowledge about the signs and symptoms of heart disease in women and breaking down stereotypes is crucial. Women getting the appropriate care they need in a timely manner is the intended goal.
Stress Management: Chronic stress can contribute to heart disease. Women should explore stress-reducing techniques such as meditation, yoga, and mindfulness to maintain emotional well-being and protect their heart health.
While heart disease has been more stereotypically associated with men’s health, the numbers paint a different picture. It’s just as vital for women to know about heart health and how heart disease presents in women so that they can take steps in living a long healthy life.