Every year in the United States, nearly 700,000 people die from heart disease. But while many think of heart disease as primarily affecting men, it affects men and women pretty much equally.
So why do women tend to be at a greater risk for more advanced heart disease and the complications it can cause?
As a leading provider of cardiovascular care in Orlando, Sebring, and Davenport, Florida, Ashish Pal, MD, and the team at Vein & Cardiovascular Center are keenly aware of women’s unique risks for heart disease, and they’re dedicated to raising awareness of those risks.
In this post, Dr. Pal and his team review five reasons women tend to be more at risk for heart disease and its damaging effects.
1. Misunderstanding — by patients and (some) providers
Historically, heart disease has been associated with men. And indeed, heart disease is the leading cause of death for men. But it’s also the leading cause of death for women — and, in fact, heart disease-related deaths occur at similar rates for both sexes.
Unfortunately, because of the long-standing belief that men are far more likely to be affected by heart disease, women with heart problems may be overlooked or misdiagnosed. Many may not even seek treatment under the mistaken belief their symptoms must be something else.
2. Lack of awareness
Additionally, most heart disease awareness and education programs have focused more on men and the disease data surrounding men. As a result, commercials, news stories, and public service announcements have largely ignored heart disease in women.
3. Symptom differences
Even if a woman does understand her own risk of heart disease, she still may not recognize the symptoms — and a doctor might not, either. While men have the well-known symptoms of crushing chest pain and pressure, women’s symptoms can be more subtle.
Women often experience symptoms like pain in the jaw, neck, back, arm, or belly, along with shortness of breath and significant fatigue.
Until the past decade or so, physician training focused more on the classic symptoms of heart disease, leaving some providers unprepared to make a diagnosis in their female patients.
4. Biological differences
Coronary artery disease, the most common type of heart disease, happens when your arteries are blocked by plaque buildup, preventing the heart from receiving adequate blood flow.
Women typically have smaller blood vessels than men, which makes it easier for those blockages to develop. Plus, for women, heart attacks and tissue death (ischemia) can happen even when the coronary arteries aren’t blocked.
Also, estrogen may play a role in cardiovascular health. Researchers aren’t clear about the link, but they know a woman’s risk of heart disease can change along with fluctuations in estrogen — both natural and synthetic estrogen used in hormone replacement therapy and contraceptives.
5. Delayed diagnosis and treatment
Lack of awareness and misunderstanding of the risks to women are two factors that can result in delays in diagnosis and treatment.
But women also may be less likely to seek medical treatment for subtler symptoms of heart trouble. That’s because many women play a more active role in managing their family’s health, putting their needs on the back burner in the process.
Know your risk factors
Even if you don’t have any symptoms of heart disease, you can still be at risk. That’s why it’s also important to know the risk factors for heart disease, including:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Family history of heart disease
- Being overweight
- Poor diet
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Sleep apnea
- Heavy alcohol use
Heart disease also tends to occur more frequently with older age.
If you have any symptoms or risk factors of heart disease, scheduling a cardiovascular evaluation is imperative for avoiding more serious — even life-threatening — problems.
To schedule your exam, book an appointment online or over the phone today with Dr. Pal and the team at Vein & Cardiovascular Center.