COLUMBIA, Mo. ― Although many Americans think of heart disease as affecting mostly men, the reality is that more women than men die each year from the disease.
“Women typically experience different symptoms than men do, and that, I think, is primarily what drives the public’s perception of who is more at risk for heart disease,” said Renee Sullivan, M.D., a cardiologist at University of Missouri Health Care. “Symptoms are usually more subtle in women, and symptoms in women may be dismissed initially because they’re not as well-known as the symptoms men experience.”
For example, the most common cause of heart disease is the narrowing or blockage of coronary arteries, which is the major reason people have heart attacks. The classic, well-known symptoms for men include crushing chest pain and severe pain in one arm or both arms.
“For women, some type of pain, pressure or discomfort in the chest also can be a symptom,” Sullivan said. “But it is not always severe or the most prominent symptom.”
In fact, women are more likely to have symptoms unrelated to chest pain, such as:
• Neck, shoulder, upper back or abdominal discomfort
• Shortness of breath
• Nausea or vomiting
• Profuse or abnormal sweating
• Lightheadedness or dizziness
• Unusual fatigue
“Because these symptoms usually are not associated with a heart attack, many women take longer to come to the hospital and eventually show up in an emergency room with more severe heart-muscle damage than do men,” Sullivan said. “The result is a poorer outcome and something we want to avoid. Prevention and awareness are very important to reverse this cycle.”
Sullivan suggests the first step in awareness for women is to know the risk factors for heart diseases. High cholesterol, high blood pressure, family history and obesity are risk factors for heart disease and affect both men and women. But other factors that may affect women more include:
• Metabolic syndrome, a combination of issues that includes an increase in the amount of fat around the abdomen, high blood pressure, high blood sugar and high triglycerides
• Mental stress and depression
• Smoking – while it raises the risk of heart disease for both men and women, it is a greater risk for women
• Low levels of estrogen after menopause
“All women face the risk of heart disease,” Sullivan said. “But being aware of symptoms and risks that are unique to women, and making healthy lifestyle changes, offers them a better chance of preventing the disease or identifying it early for improved outcomes.”
For more information about heart health, visit www.muhealth.org/heartmonth.