Secrets of the Female Heart
For women, both diagnosis and treatment of heart disease can pose special challenges.
Experts say women tend to fear breast cancer and think—even if they have heart-disease risk factors—that a heart attack will happen to someone else. In reality, heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States, followed by all cancers.
Many people don’t realize that the symptoms of heart disease in women can be different than those in men. While some women experience classic angina—chest pain—just as men do, others have nausea or flu-like symptoms instead. That can make it difficult to diagnose.
There’s also a difference in the way male and female bodies handle plaque, which accumulates in arteries and can lead to blockages in blood flow to the heart. Doctors, such as the experts at the TriHealth Heart Institute, say that instead of a major blockage in one spot, women sometimes develop more diffuse buildups along the artery wall. These elongated deposits can sometimes make angioplasty or coronary artery bypass graft surgery less effective.
Studies also show that women are more likely than men to develop dangerous conditions in the smaller byways of the arterial system, where they are more difficult to treat, rather than the major arteries leading directly to the heart.
During the childbearing years, women get some protection from natural hormones, so on average they’re a little older when heart disease is diagnosed. And they’re more likely to have additional conditions, such as diabetes and hypertension.
Researchers are still learning about these differences between men and women. But what’s clear is that women—especially those with known risk factors, such as excess weight, high cholesterol, high blood pressure or a history of smoking—should consult their doctors to make sure they’re doing all they can to protect themselves against heart disease.
4 Steps to Better Heart Health
Anything that gets your body moving and burning calories is good for your heart, as is being careful what you put into your body. Here are four simple ways to keep your heart healthy.
- Be vigorously active for 30 minutes most days.
- Don’t smoke.
- Eat fewer fatty and salty foods and more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish and poultry.
- See your doctor for regular physical exams—and if you experience chest pain, a rapid heartbeat or other troubling symptoms.
This story originally appeared in the Winter 2020 edition of Oxford Health & Life Magazine