What are the Signs of Heart Disease in Women?

Cardiovascular disease remains the leading cause of death among women and is often under recognized. Understanding your risks and which symptoms to be watching for are important factors to help reduce unnecessary deaths but are also important in the prevention of heart disease.  

The risks for heart disease in women are the same for men and in most individuals, heart disease can be entirely preventable.  Smoking is a large contributor for both heart attack and stroke and although quitting can be very difficult for many individuals, it is essential for improving heart health.  Your health care provider can help as there are many tools and programs available.

Hypertension (elevated blood pressure), dyslipidemia (elevated cholesterol), diabetes and an early family history of heart disease in a first degree are the other traditional risk factors to be aware of.  Obesity and inactivity have also been recognized as risk factors and should be addressed. Like smoking, although not easy to change, most of these risk factors can be entirely modifiable.

The risks for heart disease in women are similar to men; however, the symptoms can be very different.  The typical symptoms of a heart attack or coronary artery disease are chest heaviness or pressure. They are often worsened by exertion and improved with rest.  Chest pain can be associated with radiation to the neck or arms.  Shortness of breath, sweating, nausea and lightheadedness are also common.

In women, the symptoms are often more subtle. Shortness of breath, nausea and fatigue are more often described.  Chest pain is common but does not have to be present for men or women and yet there could still be a heart-related issue. 

If you are experiencing any of the above mentioned symptoms, you need to discuss them with a health care provider.  Acute symptoms which are not quickly relieved with rest are a medical emergency and require immediate attention in an emergency room.  Symptoms which are slow in progression can also be caused from blockages in the heart arteries or heart failure and need prompt attention.  Your health care provider can help determine if you are having a heart related issue and will determine whether you need to see a cardiologist. Certain diagnostic studies such as a stress test or heart catheterization may be indicated.  Individuals without symptoms but who want to know there risk for heart disease may benefit from calcium score screening. Your health care provider can also help determine if this is appropriate for you.

Understand your risks and pay attention to symptoms of potential heart disease.  We can reduce the deaths related to cardiovascular disease and improve overall heart health.

By Carrie Chapman, MD, cardiologist at Appleton Cardiology at Appleton Medical Center.