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Women are at risk for heart disease too

Tammy Roberts, MS, RD, LD, Nutrition and Health Education Specialist, Barton County, University of Missouri Extension


Heart disease is often thought of as being a man’s problem, but it is the number one killer of women in the United States. In Missouri, nearly 25 women die from heart disease and stroke each day. One out of every eight women between the ages of 45 and 64 has some form of heart disease. At age 65, this increases to one out of every four women.


Women have a different experience than men when it comes to the diagnosis and treatment of heart disease. For example, a strong predictor for coronary heart disease in women is having a low HDL (good cholesterol) level. In men, the stronger predictor is high LDL (bad cholesterol). Women are less likely than men to survive heart surgery, and women are less likely to receive aggressive treatment for heart disease.


It is possible for women to have any of the symptoms of a heart attack that men have. These include pain or pressure in the middle of the chest; shortness of breath; radiating pain to the shoulders, neck, back, arms or jaw; pounding heartbeats or feeling of extra heartbeats; upper abdominal pain; nausea, vomiting or extreme indigestion; unexplained sweating; dizziness with weakness; sudden extreme fatigue; or panic with the feeling of impending doom.


When men have a heart attack, a common symptom is pain that radiates down the arm. Approximately one-third of women having heart attacks experience no chest pain at all. More than two-thirds of women having heart attacks report flu-like symptoms for two to four weeks before developing a chest discomfort or severe shortness of breath.


About two-thirds of women with coronary heart disease symptoms will appear to have normal arteries on an angiogram. Of those women, half will have a condition called coronary microvascular syndrome. These women actually have blockages, but they are undetectable on the angiogram because the plaque evenly coats very small arteries, unlike the large obstructions found in men. These narrowed small arteries mean less oxygen flow to the heart and are the cause of chest pain.


Because the symptoms for heart attack can be vastly different for women than for men, it is extremely important for women to know the symptoms that are more common for them. Both women and men should seek medical help immediately at the first sign of a heart attack.


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Last Updated 02/08/2012