Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States.
And while awareness of this disease has grown in the last 10 years, only about 54 percent of women realize this fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Just a few years ago, in 2013, the Centers for Disease Control reported that heart disease claimed the lives of 289,758 women – which equates to one in every four female deaths.
The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute reports that more than 75 percent of women from age 40 to 60 have one or more risk factors for coronary heart disease.
Thankfully, there is good news: by knowing about the symptoms, risk factors and ways to keep a healthy heart, women can greatly raise their chances of avoiding heart disease.
This article takes a look at women’s heart disease, risk factors, and symptoms. We also discuss ways for women to lower their risk of heart disease by maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
The following tips and information are designed to educate women about heart disease so they can reduce their chance of becoming another statistic of this number one killer.
Symptoms of Women’s Heart Disease
Approximately two-thirds of women who instantly die of coronary heart disease have zero previous symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
In fact, heart disease can be so silent, a woman could easily go undiagnosed until she sees signs of a stroke, heart attack, heart failure or an arrhythmia. This could happen at any time: while a woman is at rest, during physical activity, or undergoing mental stress.
The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute reports that these signs can show themselves quickly – but can also take hours or days to develop.
If you experience any of these signs, contact your physician immediately – and if you feel like your life is in danger, call 9-1-1.
The following list provides the possible symptoms and warning signs of a stroke, heart attack, heart failure or an arrhythmia provided by the Centers for Disease Control and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
1. Stroke Warning Signs for Women
A woman experiencing a stroke might feel sudden weakness or the inability to move. She might also feel numb in her face – or arms or legs on one side of her body.
She might also feel confused, have difficulty talking or understanding others, and have trouble seeing out of one or both eyes.
Other symptoms of stroke may include dizziness or shortness of breath. A woman may also have trouble with balance or coordination. In some cases, a woman having a stroke might experience a sudden and severe headache – and sometimes, she’ll lose consciousness altogether.
2. Heart Attack Warning Signs for Women
Chest pain or discomfort may be a symptom of a heart attack for women. This pain may also affect the upper back for females.
However, only 50 percent of women who have heart attacks have chest pain, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
Other symptoms of a heart attack for women include indigestion, heartburn, vomiting or extreme fatigue. Women may also experience shortness of breath, or feel upper body discomfort in areas such as the jaw, arms, back, neck or upper part of the stomach.
3. Arrhythmia Warning Signs for Women
An arrhythmia, simply put, is an irregular heartbeat: the heart beats too slowly, too fast, or beats in an irregular way.
Palpitations – or fluttering sensations in the chest – could indicate the presence of an arrhythmia for women.
The most common type of heart arrhythmia is atrial fibrillation, and symptoms may include lightheadedness, extreme fatigue, chest pain or shortness of breath.
4. Heart Failure Warning Signs for Women
When a woman’s heart starts to fail, she could experience shortness of breath and may also feel fatigue.
Other common symptoms of heart failure for women include swelling of the abdomen, feet, legs and ankles.
Factors That Raise the Risk of Heart Disease in Women
Now that we’ve discussed the symptoms and warning signs of heart disease for women, let’s take a look at the risk factors.
Generally, these are lifestyle choices. That means making better decisions could reduce a woman’s risk of facing heart disease.
Lifestyle Choices that Raise the Risk of Women’s Heart Disease:
- Overweight and obesity
- Poor diet
- Physical inactivity
- Excessive alcohol use
- High blood pressure
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the key risk factors for heart disease are smoking, high blood pressure and high LDL cholesterol – and about 49 percent of Americans have experienced at least one of these three risk factors.
7 Ways for Women to Lower Their Risk of Heart Disease
There are several ways that women can reduce the risk of heart disease:
1. Get Your Blood Pressure Checked
Heart disease can result simply from having uncontrolled blood pressure. And be warned: high blood pressure typically has zero symptoms.
High blood pressure – also known as hypertension – makes the heart work harder.
A normal blood pressure is less than 120/80 mm Hg. If either of these numbers is slightly higher, a woman’s risk of heart disease and stroke increases.
According to the American Heart Association, making healthy life changes can help control high blood pressure, including eating healthy and engaging in more physical activity. It’s also important to maintain regular appointments with your healthcare provider, especially if you are taking medication for high blood pressure.
So be sure to have your blood pressure checked regularly with your physician. Or, you can purchase a blood pressure monitor and check yourself from the comfort of home.
If you purchase one of these devices, the American Heart Association recommends an automatic, cuff-style, bicep monitor.
2. Don’t Smoke – And If You Do, Quit
It goes without saying that cigarettes and nicotine cause a host of health problems – and this habit leads to many deaths in America each year.
For women who smoke, there’s a 25 percent higher risk of developing heart disease. Smoking can also lead to other diseases, such as heart failure and stroke.
Women who smoke are advised to talk to their physician about ways to quit. One way is by taking certain medications, such as Zyban or Chantix.
There’s also a wide range of smoking cessation products out there, such as nicotine patches and nicotine gum.
For advice on ways to quit, check out the Quit Tips provided by the Centers for Disease Control.
Many Americans – not just women – don’t engage in enough physical activity. This alone can increase the risk of heart disease.
Inactivity can also lead to the development of other health-threatening conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, which are both considered huge risk factors for heart disease.
The American Heart Association recommends engaging in physical activity at least 150 minutes per week. This can involve moderately intense aerobic exercise, like brisk walking.
If this time commitment is tough, engaging in at least 75 minutes a week of vigorous activity, like jogging, is also beneficial.
In addition to aerobic activity, the American Heart Association suggests undergoing at least two sessions of strength training per week.
4. Check Your Cholesterol
High cholesterol is considered a major risk factor that can lead to heart disease, heart attack and stroke for women.
While cholesterol levels are known to rise after menopause for women, it’s important for females to start keeping track as early as their 20s with checkups at least every five years.
If you’re past your 20s, ask your physician how frequently you should check your cholesterol.
One way to keep cholesterol down is to stay away from foods containing saturated fat and trans fat, which can make cholesterol levels rise. Foods with these fats include French fries, doughnuts, muffins and cookies – and some meat and dairy products.
Regular physical activity can also help bring the levels of bad cholesterol down. Exercise can also raise levels of good cholesterol, which can help reduce the risk of heart disease.
If your cholesterol levels are too high, talk to your doctor about medications like Statins, which are pharmaceutical drugs known to lower cholesterol.
5. Don’t Abuse Alcohol
Drinking too much booze can potentially make the blood pressure rise. Heavy alcohol use can also damage the heart, and women who binge drink raise their risk of stroke.
According to the Women’s Heart Foundation, consuming more than three alcoholic drinks per day has a direct effect on the heart that’s toxic. And heavy drinking over time can damage the heart, potentially leading to congestive heart failure and stroke.
Every woman’s tolerance for alcohol is different. So if you like to imbibe, talk to your doctor about the amount of alcohol you can safely consume without putting yourself at risk for heart disease.
6. Eat a Healthy Diet
A woman’s diet can greatly determine her risk for heart disease. So it’s important to eat healthy for a healthy heart.
A heart-healthy diet should include a variety of fruits, whole grains, vegetables and low-fat dairy foods.
Fish is also a great healthy heart choice, especially fish with omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon, trout, and herring.
Foods rich in fiber are also great choices. Experts suggest consuming about 25 grams of fiber daily, which can be found in foods like lentils, oatmeal, blackberries and kidney beans.
7. Maintain a Healthy Weight
Extra weight on a woman’s body can cause strain to her heart, especially for women who tend to carry extra pounds around their waist.
Too much extra weight can also contribute to other health problems, such as high cholesterol, diabetes, and high blood pressure – all of which are risk factors for heart disease.
The following advice can help you determine whether or not you’re carrying too much extra weight, and what to do if you need to drop a few pounds.
Know Your Body Mass Index: Knowing your Body Mass Index – BMI – helps estimate the amount of body fat you’re carrying so you know whether or not you’ll need to drop weight. You can check your BMI with your doctor, or Check your BMI online with a tool provided by the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute.
Measure Your Waist: A woman’s waist circumference can also help determine the risk for heart disease – especially if it measures more than 35 inches. A measurement like this can potentially lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
Shed a Few Pounds If Needed: If your BMI is too high, or your waist measures more than 35 inches, losing a few pounds can help reduce your risk of heart disease.
One way to lose weight and potentially keep it off is to exercise regularly. To lose a few pounds, experts suggest spending an hour to 90 minutes a day of brisk walking – or any other kind of moderate activity.
The Bottom Line: Healthy Habits Can Lower the Risk of Women’s Heart Disease
Heart disease remains the number one killer of women in America. But by minding the warning signs, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, women can greatly reduce their chances of being afflicted.
Warning signs of heart disease for women include:
- Neck pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Discomfort in the jaw, arms, back, neck or upper part of the stomach
Ways to lower the risk of heart disease and maintain a healthy heart include:
- Engaging in regular exercise
- Eating a healthy diet
- Losing a few pounds if needed
- Quitting smoking or not smoking to begin with
- Maintaining low cholesterol levels
- Being mindful of alcohol intake
If you think you are having a heart attack, don’t wait – call 9-1-1 as soon as possible because every minute counts. Also, by calling 9-1-1, you’ll most likely be put aboard an ambulance, where you will be treated by emergency personnel immediately.
If you can’t call 9-1-1, ask a friend or neighbor to drive you to the nearest hospital. By all means, do not drive yourself.
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