According to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer of women, with heart disease and stroke causing 1 in every 3 deaths each year. The good news is that every woman has the power to improve her health and lower her risk through education and healthy lifestyle changes.
The Unique Risk Factors Women Face
Women are predisposed to several distinct risk factors for heart disease.
Coronary artery disease (CAD), the most common form of heart disease, is caused by plaque buildup in the arteries, blocking blood supply to the heart. Women are more likely to experience common CAD risk factors, such as high blood pressure, as well as mental health conditions like high stress, anxiety, depression or low social support. An October 2023 study by the American Psychological Association found that 27% of women rated their stress levels between and 8 and 10 out of 10, versus 21% of men.
In addition, pregnancy-related conditions, including preeclampsia and gestational diabetes can increase a woman’s risk of CAD. The hormonal changes women undergo in menopause, as well as hormone replacement therapy, can also play a role.
When experiencing a heart attack, the symptoms may present differently in women than in men, and may include shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting and back or jaw pain, which are often mistaken for the flu, acid reflux, or symptoms of menopause.
What’s more, many women struggle to put their own health first, prioritizing the needs of their family members ahead of themselves. Although traditional gender roles no longer hold true in many households, I still see a general disparity in the patients I see. A lot of women bring their husbands in when they show signs of heart trouble; when I ask them how they themselves are doing, the women usually respond, “Oh, I’m fine.” That may well be the case, but putting off regular checkups in favor of other family members’ is never a good idea, especially with family history being a risk factor.
How to Prioritize Your Heart Health
Basic health screenings, including for blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes can catch developing conditions early, so an annual visit with your primary care physician is a must for optimal heart health, as is regular physical activity, avoiding smoking and good nutrition. A plant-based diet (like many physicians, I recommend the Mediterranean diet) can lower the risk of heart disease and stroke by as much as 25% – the same effect that cholesterol medicine can have.
The #1 heart health mistake people make remains smoking tobacco, as well as marijuana, now that it has been legalized in so many states, including New York. Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, and while the potential effects on the heart of smoking marijuana are still being determined, some studies have suggested that the activity can increase one’s risk of heart disease and heart attack.
One thing that many people also dismiss is that, unfortunately, COVID-19 is still with us. I see a lot of patients with long COVID who are experiencing chest pain and heart palpitations three or more years since their initial infection. The full impact of COVID-19 on the heart is still being studied, but we know it can cause severe inflammation, raising your risk of blood clots. The monovalent vaccine is safe and effective, and I strongly advise my patients to stay up to date with their vaccines.
Bringing the number of cases and fatalities down – in women, and in all of us – should be a goal for everyone. Your healthcare provider can go into more depth with you about ways to avoid developing heart disease, as well as how to properly treat it.