Heart Disease in Women: What You Need to Know
Cardiovascular disease – mainly heart attack and stroke – is one of the biggest killers of women in Ireland, yet research carried out by the Irish Heart Foundation showed that less than one in five Irish women were aware of this.
Why is the risk of heart disease in women higher than in men? The reason is that women have additional risk factors. It is therefore important to be aware of these risk factors in order to monitor and care for your heart health.
Heart Health Risk Factors Specific to Women
- Hormones: Women produce more oestrogen, which raises a woman's HDL, the “good” cholesterol, and lowers LDL, the “bad” cholesterol. During menopause, oestrogen levels decrease. This drop can lead women to develop high blood pressure (hypertension) and increased LDL cholesterol levels.
- Pregnancy: Pregnancy itself does not raise the risk of heart disease. However, if a woman experiences high blood pressure, gestational diabetes, gestational hypertension, or preeclampsia during pregnancy, she is at higher risk for developing cardiovascular disease later in life.
- Stress: Although stress is a risk factor for both sexes, women's stress seems to produce symptoms more often.
Other Risk Factors
Both women and men can have other risk factors for heart disease including:
- Family history: Family history of heart disease, including parents and siblings.
- High blood pressure: Those with hypertension are at a higher risk for stroke or cardiovascular disease.
- Diabetes: Someone with borderline diabetes, or who is diabetic, has a higher risk of heart disease. People with diabetes can also develop high cholesterol more quickly than those who do not have the disease.
- Smoking: People who smoke have a higher risk of heart disease and stroke. Smoking causes inflammation in the body and hardens the arteries, increasing a person's risk for stroke or heart attack. In fact, women who smoke are at risk of having a heart attack 19 years earlier than women who don't smoke.
- Diet: An excessive amount of meat, fried foods, and cheese also can increase heart disease risk.
- Rheumatoid arthritis and lupus: Conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus increase a person's risk of heart disease.
Know the Warning Signs of Heart Disease in Women
Knowing the warning signs for cardiovascular events may enable you to catch problems earlier. Getting medical help early can improve the likelihood of a better outcome, with fewer complications.
For women with heart disease, symptoms of a cardiac event or heart attack may include:
- Intermittent pressure or pain in the chest.
- Pain in the jaw, arm, or back.
- Severe fatigue.
- Shortness of breath.
Although men also experience some of these symptoms (including chest pain and arm pain), the symptoms may be less dramatic in women.
For any symptoms of a heart attack, it's important to seek medical care immediately.
For other types of heart disease, also look for symptoms, such as:
- Ankle or foot swelling.
- Rapid weight gain.
Your heart disease risk factors can help you and your doctor decide whether you need heart function screenings, tests, or interventions. You can also discuss lifestyle changes that may decrease your risk.
It's impossible to eliminate stress entirely, but you can try to cultivate a lifestyle that reduces stress: exercise regularly, get enough sleep, and make time to engage in activities that let you relax.
Eating whole foods is a great way to maintain a healthy diet, which is good for your heart.
Aspirin: Yes or No?
Researchers have explored the use of baby aspirin as a preventive measure for cardiovascular disease. Consult your doctor before taking baby aspirin or any type of supplements, including herbal supplements.
UPMC Cardiology Services
UPMC provides screening, diagnostic testing, and many of the most up- to-date treatments for patients.
With locations in Kilkenny, Kildare, and Waterford and an outreach centre in Carlow, UPMC Cardiology Services can offer world-class care, closer to home.