Defining Women’s Heart Health

BY: Olivia Belanger
For years, heart disease and heart attacks have been viewed as a man’s issue. However, women are not immune to this potentially deadly condition.

    Doctors and healthcare professionals advise women to take serious heed of heart disease, which claims more female lives than breast cancer, other cancers, respiratory disease, and Alzheimer’s disease combined.

    The American Heart Association reported more women are now aware that heart disease is the leading cause of death among females than they were 20 years ago. While just 30 percent of women recognized that in 1997, that figure had risen to 56 percent by 2012. However, the AHA reports that only 42 percent of women aged 35 and older are concerned about heart disease. Initiatives like Go Red for Women in February help shed light on the threat posed by heart disease.

    Dr. Mirza M. Ashraf, cardiologist and medical director at Carthage Area Hospital, said it’s a common misconception that women aren’t as susceptible to heart diseases as men.

    In reality, the symptoms just look a little different. In men, Dr. Ashraf said it’s common to experience chest pain during a heart attack. For women, the most common sign is shortness of breath. Additionally, women are more likely to have a heart attack post-menopause.

During a heart attack, symptoms for women include:

    -Shortness of breath


    -Unusual fatigue

    -Cold sweat



    -Arm weakness or heaviness

One month before a heart attack, symptoms for women include:

    -Unusual fatigue

    -Sleep disturbance

    -Shortness of breath



    -Heart racing

    -Arm weakness or heaviness

    According to Harvard Health Publishing, a woman is also more likely than a man to die within one year of having a heart attack. Women have also shown not to react well to clot-busting drugs or heart-related medical procedures.

    In regard to heart disease, women have smaller and lighter coronary arteries than men do. This makes angiography, angioplasty and coronary bypass surgery more difficult, reducing a woman’s chance of receiving a proper diagnosis and having a positive outcome. Symptoms following a bypass surgery are also more likely in women.

    Some other key differences between men and women’s heart health include:

Blood Lipids – Before menopause, a woman’s own estrogen helps protect her from heart disease by increasing HDL (good) cholesterol and decreasing LDL (bad) cholesterol. After menopause, women have higher concentrations of total cholesterol than men do. But this alone doesn’t explain the sudden rise in heart disease risk after menopause. Elevated triglycerides are an important contributor to cardiovascular risk in women. Low HDL and high triglycerides appear to be the only factors that increase the risk of death from heart disease in women over age 65.

Diabetes – Diabetes increases the risk of heart disease in women more than it does in men, perhaps because women with diabetes more often have added risk factors, such as obesity, hypertension, and high cholesterol. Although women usually develop heart disease about 10 years later than men, diabetes erases that advantage. In women who’ve already had a heart attack, diabetes doubles the risk for a second heart attack and increases the risk for heart failure.

Metabolic Syndrome – This is a group of health risks — large waist size, elevated blood pressure, glucose intolerance, low HDL cholesterol, and high triglycerides — that increases your chance of developing heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Harvard Medical School research suggests that, for women, metabolic syndrome is the most important risk factor for having heart attacks at an unusually early age. In a study of patients undergoing bypass surgery, metabolic syndrome produced a greater risk for women than it did for men of dying within eight years.

    To help the lack of working resources for women’s heart health, research is now beginning to uncover the biological, medical and social bases of these differences in hopes to advance prevention and treatment to women.

    Until then, there are every day changes women can use to improve their heart.

    Dr. Ashraf said avoiding sweets, sodium and foods with high carbohydrates will help. Also, having a handful of mixed tree nuts three to four times per day is good for not only the heart, but overall health.

Other ways to improve your heart health include:

-Stop smoking – One of the best things to do to protect the heart is to stop smoking. The Heart Foundation indicates that smoking reduces oxygen in the blood and damages blood vessel walls. It also contributes to atherosclerosis, or a narrowing and clogging of the arteries.

-Eat healthy fats – When eating, choose polyunsaturated and unsaturated fats and avoid trans fats as much as possible. Trans fats increase one’s risk of developing heart disease by clogging arteries and raising LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. Read food labels before buying anything at the store.

-Keep your mouth clean – Studies show that bacteria in the mouth involved in the development of gum disease can travel to the bloodstream and cause an elevation in C-reactive protein, a marker for blood vessel inflammation. Brush and floss twice daily, and be sure to schedule routine dental cleanings.

-Get enough sleep – Ensuring adequate sleep can improve heart health. One study found that young and middle-age adults who regularly slept seven hours a night had less calcium in their arteries – a sign of early heart disease – compared to those who slept five hours or less or those who slept nine hours or more.

-Adopt healthy eating habits – Changes to diet, including eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein, can help you lose and maintain a healthy weight, improve cholesterol levels and reduce blood pressure  and lead to a healthier heart.

-Embrace physical activity – Regular moderate exercise is great for the heart. It can occur at the gym, playing with the kids or even taking the stairs at work.

Dr. Ashraf said actively checking blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar at doctor’s visits is also important to monitoring any heart issues from the start.