11 Facts About Heart Disease All Women Should Know

11 Facts About Heart Disease All Women Should Know

The top facts women need to know about heart disease prevention and risks.


By: Maressa Brown

While one in eight women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in her lifetime, there’s an even bigger threat out there that we’re not talking about nearly as much. It’s heart disease, and it’s the no. 1 threat to American women, affecting one in four of us.

In a now-viral op-ed piece in The New York Times, Martha Weinman Lear revealed how, two years ago, she had a heart attack. One of the many things she learned in the aftermath was just how much women’s symptoms differ from men’s. And that’s just one of the many realities of heart disease in women that everyone should know. Here, 11 vital facts.

1. Until recently, doctors didn’t widely recognize that women have heart attacks. As Lear writes, it wasn’t “until this millennium … there was minimal research on women’s heart attacks, because of widespread belief in the medical community that women did not have heart attacks.” Most research looked at men alone.

2. Research on women is still stunted. Only 24 percent of all participants in heart-related studies are women.

3. Women experience heart attacks differently than men. The most common symptom for both genders is chest pain, but women may experience chest pain that feels like a squeezing or fullness, and instead of being only on the left side, it can be anywhere in the chest. Women also more commonly experience gradual or sudden pain in the arm, back, neck, or jaw that gets stronger and weakens before becoming intense. Other symptoms include stomach pain, shortness of breath, nausea, lightheadedness, sweating, and fatigue.

4. For the majority of women, early warning signs of heart attack feel like the flu. Seventy-one percent of women get early warning signs of a heart attack with sudden onset of extreme weakness that feels like coming down with the flu, often without chest pain. This is a case for seeing your doctor if you’re concerned, no matter how mild your symptoms may seem.

5. There are many risk factors. More than 75 percent of women aged 40 to 60 have one or more risk factors for coronary heart disease, notes the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Many risk factors start during childhood; some even develop within the first 10 years of life. You can control many of them, including smoking and diet (which can be linked to high amounts of certain fats and cholesterol in the blood, high blood pressure, and high amounts of sugar in the blood due to insulin resistance). Other risk factors, like menopause, are out of our control, but the fewer risks you have overall, the better.

6. Getting certain tests can put you in charge of your health. There are a few things you may want to ask your doctor to test for, so you can know where you stand in regard to risk: blood pressure, diabetes (which raises chances of heart disease when uncontrolled), and cholesterol/triglycerides.

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7. Reducing stress is key. No matter your age or risk factors, lowering your stress level and finding healthy ways to cope with stress will help reduce your chances of developing heart disease, notes the Centers for Disease Control.

8. Younger women need to speak up. A 2012 study from the American Heart Association (AHA) found that women aged 25-34 were not discussing heart disease risk with their doctors as frequently as women 65 and over. Only 6 percent of younger women were having the conversation compared with 33 percent of older women.

9. Good fats can lower your risk. Not all fats are made equal. The American Heart Association encourages people to eat foods with monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats instead of saturated and trans fats. Try to make sure healthy fats don’t exceed 35 percent of your total daily calories, the AHA says. To control portions, try just a handful of nuts or olives for a snack.

10. Get your ZZZs. How much snoozing you’re doing can influence your risk of heart disease. Studies citied by the AHA have found that most people need six to eight hours of sleep each day and that too little or too much can increase the risk of cardiovascular problems.

11. Make some moves. We all know exercise has many benefits, but it is also a major way to prevent heart disease. The AHA recommends doing aerobic exercise -- using large muscles of the legs and arms -- on most days of the week for 30 to 60 minutes to help your heart work more efficiently.

Which of these facts did you not know before?



Maressa Brown is a senior staff writer for The Stir. She loves writing about and reading up on health/fitness, relationships, and pop culture -- preferably on a beach somewhere.

Image ©iStock.com/Daisy-Daisy

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