Women and Heart Health
What you need to know
Published February 9, 2023.
We’ve come a long way in the past few decades when it comes to what we know about cardiovascular disease. It used to be thought of as a man’s disease, but only about half of all women are aware that heart disease is their #1 cause of death.(1) That’s why it’s critical to understand more about the cardiovascular system and what women of all ages can do to stay healthy.
Knowing the risk factors and symptoms to look out for is the good way to start. We’ve put together some important information that will help guide you and your loved ones with these heart health strategies. To help you better understand your risk for cardiovascular disease, check out our convenient, online cardiovascular tests.
What’s the connection between women and heart disease?
What is heart disease?
When you hear the term heart disease, it includes a variety of heart conditions. One of the most common is coronary artery disease, which is caused by a buildup of plaque in the arteries that bring blood to the heart.
If plaque builds up and there is a less than normal amount of blood flowing to the heart, this can cause a heart attack. During these events, people may experience arrhythmias, or irregular heartbeats that cause a fluttering feeling in the chest.
Women and heart disease
Even though heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in America, women’s symptoms of coronary artery disease and heart attack are too often missed. For several reasons specific to women, they are also less likely to get the treatments recommended by their doctors.
Top facts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
- Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States, killing 314,186 women in 2020—or about 1 in every 5 female deaths.(2)
- Heart disease is the leading cause of death for African American and white women in the United States. For American Indian and Alaska Native women, heart disease and cancer cause about the same number of deaths each year. Among Hispanic and Asian or Pacific Islander women, heart disease is second only to cancer as a cause of death.(3)
- About 1 in 16 women aged 20 and older (6.2%) have coronary heart disease, the most common type of heart disease.(4)
- White women (6.1%), black women (6.5%), Hispanic women (6%), and Asian women (3.2%)
How do I know if I’m at risk for heart disease?
Heart disease can affect women at any age and sometimes without any symptoms. And more cases are being reported in women younger than 50. Early diagnosis and treatment can save your life so it’s important to learn more about where you may be at risk.
Factors that can raise your risk:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- A diet that’s high in saturated fats and cholesterol
- Family history of heart disease
- Not getting enough exercise
- Drinking too much alcohol
Other risk factors for women:
- Caretaker syndrome (putting the health of others before your own)
- Health problems during pregnancy
- Treatment for breast cancer
- Menopause and hormones
- Stress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Know your numbers
After understanding your overall risk factors, knowing some basic and important numbers about your body is key. Keep in mind the ranges that are normal and healthy for most people and see your doctor for regular checkups.
Your heart health risk is determined by a combination of numbers:
- Body mass index (BMI) | 18.5 kg to 24.9kg -Things like ethnicity and muscularity can affect what is ideal for each person.
- Blood pressure | 120/80 - Your readings change often during the day, but this is considered normal for women aged 20 and over.
- Blood sugar | 100mg/dL- A fasting blood sugar level of less than 100mg/dL is considered normal. Anything more than 200mg could indicate you have diabetes.
- Total cholesterol and HDL (good) cholesterol - Ideal numbers vary from person to person. Check HDL, LDL, and total cholesterol levels and discuss with your doctor.
Quest has convenient cardiovascular tests available to buy online, no doctor visit required.
Cholesterol (Lipid) Panel View test >
Comprehensive Health Profile – Standard View test>
Basic Health Profile – Standard View test >
Complete Blood Count (CBC) View test>
What symptoms should I look out for?
For women, as well as men, the most common symptom of heart attack is chest pain, chest pressure, or any type of discomfort that comes and goes or lasts for a few minutes. Women more often do not have pain, but symptoms like chest pressure, chest tightness, or symptoms that seem vague or unrelated to the heart.
Common heart attack symptoms for women:
- Pain in one or both arms
- Discomfort in the neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back, or upper belly
- Feeling short of breath
- Nausea or vomiting
- Chest pain
The reason why women may have a wider range of symptoms is because they are more likely to have blockages in smaller arteries that supply blood to the heart. This is called small vessel heart disease or coronary microvascular disease.
Women also have more symptoms when they are sleeping or at rest. Emotional stress can also play a role in bringing on heart attack symptoms in women.
How does stress affect my heart?
When your body is under stress for a long period of time, this can cause your immune system to work overtime, which creates inflammation. This inflammation in your body increases the risk for blocked arteries, restricted blood flow to your heart, and heart attack.
The INTERHEART study followed 24,000 people in 52 countries and discovered that those with high levels of stress had a greater risk of heart problems. There were four areas that were most likely to lead to a heart attack: stress related to work, home, money, or death in the family.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
While PTSD has been treated as a mental health issue in the past, research shows that PTSD also contributes to cardiovascular disease.
A federally funded study followed 50,000 women to observe connections between PTSD and cardiovascular disease. This study found that trauma affects women’s heart health more than men. And women who had a traumatic event in their lives had a higher risk for heart attacks and strokes than women who did not suffer a trauma.(5)
Menopause and Heart Health
Keeping up with heart heath is even more important for women who are nearing or have been through menopause. The risks of heart disease and stroke are higher after menopause, which may have to do with the decrease in estrogen that happens during this time. But there are lots of things you can do to keep your heart healthy.
Ways you can protect your heart after menopause:
- Have regular checkups- Make sure to see your doctor regularly to keep an eye on: cholesterol, blood pressure, glucose levels, and body mass index (BMI).
- Stay active- Even if you haven’t exercised before, now is a great time to start. Women should try to get 150 minutes of exercise each week. You can even break that up in to easy, 10-minute increments and you’ll still see the benefits.
- Watch your diet- A healthy diet means a better functioning heart, body, and mind. Try to eat lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, fish, chicken and lean meat, or plant-based proteins.
- Manage stress- Some women experience depression during menopause, due to hormonal shifts or the normal emotional and physical stresses during this transition. Stay connected to your social networks, stay positive, and celebrate your life.
Learn more about How the Road to Menopause Affects Your Heart.
Pregnancy and Heart Health
It may surprise you to know that the No. 1 killer of new moms is heart disease. Pregnancy puts added strain on the heart and blood vessels, which can cause a number of health problems, including cardiovascular disease. Changing hormones levels can also affect the heart and body during this time.
The conditions that happen during pregnancy can have an effect on a woman’s long-term health.
Pregnancy-related heart conditions:
- High blood pressure- Women who’ve never had a problem with high blood pressure can develop a condition during pregnancy called preeclampsia. This is when high blood pressure continues throughout the pregnancy and can lead to complications.
- Peripartum Cardiomyopathy (PPCM)- Peripartum cardiomyopathy, or PPCM, is a less common form of heart failure that happens during the last month of pregnancy. It can also happen up to five months after the baby is born.
- Stroke- Pregnancy also raises a woman’s risk for stroke—when a blood vessel bursts in the brain or the blood supply to part of the brain is blocked. Women may sometimes dismiss symptoms of a stroke since they can seem like routine pregnancy problems.
- Gestational diabetes- Sometimes women develop gestational diabetes during pregnancy, even though they had no prior history before they were pregnant. It’s possible that being overweight before pregnancy may play a role, but researchers are still not sure. Women with gestational diabetes have a 50% chance of developing Type 2 diabetes after pregnancy.
Learn more about Heart Risks and Pregnancy.
What can I do to prevent heart disease?
It’s good to know that an estimated 80% of cardiovascular disease, including heart disease and stroke, are preventable. Still, the number of people with heart disease is expected to rise. By 2035, it’s projected that 45% of the US adult population will be living with cardiovascular disease.
While we can’t change certain things like family history, sex, or age, there’s a lot you can do to lower your risk of heart disease. One of the most important things to remember is to listen to your body. If you have any new or unusual symptoms, or just don’t feel well, talk to your doctor as soon as you can.
Tips for reducing your risk:
- Quit smoking
- Know your numbers: Get regular screenings for blood pressure, BMI, cholesterol, and blood sugar
- Limit alcohol intake to 1 drink per day or less
- Exercise at least 30 minutes each day
- Eat a heart-healthy diet and manage your weight
- Reduce stress
- Get your rest
Quest offers online cardiovascular testing that can help you better understand your risk factors. They can help you measure important health markers like cholesterol (lipids), coagulation (clotting), glucose (sugar), and more.
- Mosca L, Hammond G, Mochari-Greenberger H, Towfighi A, Albert MA, American Heart Association Cardiovascular Disease and Stroke in Women and Special Populations Committee of the Council on Clinical Cardiology, Council on Epidemiology and Prevention, Council on Cardiovascular Nursing, Council on High Blood Pressure Research, and Council on Nutrition, Physical Activity and Metabolism. Fifteen-year trends in awareness of heart disease in women: Results of a 2012 American Heart Association national survey. Circulation. 2013;127(11):1254–63, e1–29
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. About Multiple Cause of Death, 1999–2020. CDC WONDER Online Database website. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2022. Accessed February 21, 2022.
- Heron M. Deaths: Leading causes for 2016 [PDF-2.3M]. National Vital Statistics Reports. 2018;67(6).
- Benjamin EJ, Muntner P, Alonso A, Bittencourt MS, Callaway CW, Carson AP, et al. Heart disease and stroke statistics—2019 update: a report from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2019;139:e1–e473.
- “PTSD, trauma may raise heart, stroke risk in women,” American Heart Association journal, Circulation; June 2015.
- About Heart Disease. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last reviewed July 12, 2022. Accessed January 31, 2023. https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/about.htm
- Coronary Artery Disease. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last reviewed July 9, 2021. Accessed January 31, 2023. https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/coronary_ad.htm
- Know Your Risk for Heart Disease. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last reviewed December 9, 2019. Accessed January 31, 2023. https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/risk_factors.htm
- Women and Heart Disease. American College of Cardiology. Last reviewed March 11, 2021. Accessed January 31, 2023. https://www.cardiosmart.org/topics/women-and-heart-disease
- Tips for Staying Healthy. American College of Cardiology. Last reviewed March 11, 2021. Accessed January 31, 2023. https://www.cardiosmart.org/topics/women-and-heart-disease/prevention/tips-for-staying-healthy
- Know Your Numbers. American Heart Association | Go Red For Women. Last reviewed 2020. Accessed January 31, 2023. https://www.goredforwomen.org/en/know-your-risk/know-your-numbers
- How to Prevent Heart Disease After Menopause. American Heart Association | Go Red For Women. Last reviewed 2023. Accessed January 31, 2023. https://www.goredforwomen.org/en/about-heart-disease-in-women/preventing-cardiovascular-disease/how-to-prevent-heart-disease-after-menopause
- Pregnancy and Maternal Health. American Heart Association | Go Red For Women. Last reviewed 2023. Accessed January 31, 2023. https://www.goredforwomen.org/en/know-your-risk/pregnancy-and-maternal-health
- Calculating a Healthy BMI for Women: Do Age, Ethnicity, and Muscularity Affect it? Healthline. Last reviewed February 3, 2022. Accessed January 31, 2023. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/bmi-for-women#does-the-same-chart-suit-all-women
- Heart Disease in Women: Understand Symptoms and Risk Factors. Mayo Clinic. Last reviewed January 20, 2022. Accessed January 31, 2023. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-disease/in-depth/heart-disease/art-20046167
- 5 Ways to Stop Stress from Harming Your Heart. Cleveland HeartLab. Last reviewed May 6, 2019. Accessed January 31, 2023. https://www.clevelandheartlab.com/blog/5-ways-to-stop-stress-from-harming-your-heart/
- How the Road to Menopause Affects Your Heart. Cleveland HeartLab. Last reviewed January 5, 2021. Accessed January 31, 2023 https://www.clevelandheartlab.com/blog/how-the-road-to-menopause-affects-your-heart/
- Heart Risks and Pregnancy. Cleveland HeartLab. Last reviewed November 24, 2020. Accessed January 31, 2023. https://www.clevelandheartlab.com/blog/heart-risks-and-pregnancy/
- CDC Prevention Programs. American Heart Association. Last reviewed November 24, 2020. Accessed January 31, 2023. https://www.heart.org/en/get-involved/advocate/federal-priorities/cdc-prevention-programs
- Boulware, Carol. PTSD and Trauma Increase Women’s Heart Disease Risk. Therapy in LA.com. Accessed January 31, 2023. https://therapyinla.com/ptsd-trauma-womens-heart-disease-risk/
- Women and Heart Disease. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last reviewed October 14, 2022. Accessed January 26, 2023. https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/women.htm