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Heart Health for Women

Nina Pham

While heart disease is often associated with men, it's crucial to recognize that it is also a significant threat to women's health. In fact, heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States.  

 As women, it is important for us to understand the unique aspects of our heart health, including risk factors, symptoms, prevention strategies and the importance of early detection and treatment.  This awareness is important throughout the year and we want to share additional advice during February as American Heart Month.

Understanding Risk Factors 

Many of the risk factors for heart disease in women are similar to those found in men, including high blood pressure (hypertension), high cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, obesity, and a sedentary lifestyle. However, there are some gender-specific risk factors that can increase a woman's likelihood of developing heart disease, including: 

  • Hormonal changes: Fluctuations in estrogen levels due to menopause or certain medications can affect cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease. 
  • Pregnancy complications: Conditions like gestational diabetes or high blood pressure during pregnancy can increase a woman's risk of developing heart disease later in life. 
  • Mental health: Depression and chronic stress have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease in women. 

 Women of all ages should take heart disease seriously,  especially those with a family history of heart disease. and pay close attention to heart disease risk factors. 

Recognizing Symptoms 

Heart disease symptoms can manifest differently in women than in men, which can lead to under-diagnosis and under-treatment. Women are more likely to experience the following symptoms: 

  • Chest pain or discomfort 
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Pain in the back, neck or jaw
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness  

Compared to men, women tend to have symptoms more often when resting, or even when asleep. Because women's symptoms can differ from men's, they might be diagnosed less often with heart disease than men. That is why it is important for women to be aware of these symptoms and seek medical attention as soon as you experience them, as prompt treatment can be lifesaving. 

Prevention Strategies 

Preventing heart disease in women involves adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle and managing risk factors. To do this you should: 

  • Eat a balanced diet that is low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, and sodium, and high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. 
  • Engage in regular physical activity, aiming for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week. 
  • Maintain a healthy weight and waist circumference. 
  • Manage stress through relaxation techniques, hobbies, and social support. 
  • Avoid tobacco smoke and limit alcohol consumption. 
  • Get regular check-ups and screenings for conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. 

Remember to check with your doctor or advanced practice provider (APP)* to discuss your specific needs, especially around diet and exercise. 

Importance of Early Detection and Treatment 

Early detection of heart disease is crucial for women, as it can lead to more effective treatment and better outcomes. Regular check-ups with your primary care doctor or APP can help identify risk factors and detect signs of heart disease early. Diagnostic tests such as electrocardiograms (ECGs), echocardiograms and stress tests may be recommended based on your individual risk factors and symptoms. Treatment options for heart disease in women may include lifestyle changes, medications, and in some cases, surgical procedures such as angioplasty or bypass surgery. 

It is important to remember not just during American Heart Month but every day that heart disease is a significant health concern for women and that women have unique risk factors, symptoms, and prevention strategies related to their heart health. By encouraging women to prioritize their heart health through healthy lifestyle choices, regular check-ups, and awareness of symptoms, we can help improve their overall well-being.  

*An advanced practice provider is defined as a nurse practitioner or physician assistant.

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