The Heart of a Woman

Heart disease is not a disease that only affects men. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), heart disease kills more than 500,000 women annually. In 2001, well over half of the people who died from heart disease were women.

Yet, "Women still think they cannot have coronary disease," says Dr. Massimo Guisti of Cardiovascular Associates of Virginia, PC. "They are more afraid of ovarian or breast cancer, but coronary disease is the actually the leading cause of death in women."

Heart disease often presents itself differently in women than it does in men. That includes the warning signs of a heart attack as well. In addition to the classic heart attack warning signs, such as chest discomfort, shortness of breath and pain in one or both arms, women may experience these less common signs:
  • Atypical chest, stomach or abdominal pain.
  • Nausea or dizziness without chest pain.
  • Shortness of breath and difficulty breathing without chest pain.
  • Unexplained anxiety, weakness or fatigue.
  • Palpitations, cold sweat or paleness.
The National Heart, Lung & Blood Institute reports that one in 10 American women, ages 45-64, has some form of heart disease. In women over the age of 65, these numbers double. For women, like men, the major risk factors for heart disease include increasing age, heredity, tobacco use, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, physical inactivity and obesity.

While some of these factors, such as age and family history, cannot be modified, there are plenty others that can. The first step a woman can do towards reducing her risk of coronary disease is to take more responsibility for her health. Women must insist on a thorough risk assessment from their healthcare provider, and not be afraid to ask questions.

The American Heart Association suggests that every woman ask her healthcare provider these 10 questions about cardiovascular disease:
  • What are my risk factors for heart disease?
  • Am I at risk for a stroke?
  • What are the warning signs of heart disease and a stroke?
  • What should I know about the effects of menopause on my heart health?
  • Do I need to lose or gain weight for my health?
  • What is a healthful eating plan for me?
  • What kind of physical activity is right for me?
  • What is my blood pressure, and is it appropriate for my age?
  • What is my cholesterol level, and is it healthy or does it need improving?
  • Based on my history and risk factors, what can I do to lower my risk of heart disease and stroke?
For mature women, the question of menopause and heart health is particularly important. Long gone is the misconception that estrogen protects post-menopausal women from heart disease. Therefore, mature women need to maintain an open dialog with their primary care physician and gynecologist on the subject, and again do not be afraid to ask questions.

"Women are underrepresented in terms of the workup we do in the cardiac world," says Henrico Doctor’s Hospital cardiologist Dr. Gary Zeevi. "After menopause all women should have a fairly extensive evaluation of their coronary risk."

For more information on women and heart disease, visit the American Heart Association's Website. Learn more about heart attack symptoms in women at
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Member Comments

Thank you. Good info. Report
I was a 180 pounds when I learned about my heart problems, I
Iota down to a 107 pounds. I had to have surgery and I gain 20 pounds. Now am working to get it back down.

Good to know. Thanks. Report
Thank You for a great article. Report
I just had my second STEMI (Widow maker) heart attack in 2 years time, with one minor heart attack in the middle. My heart is functioning at only 20% and there is a lot of damage to it. It is also only doing a 30% flow. I am now on insulin as this last heart attack sent me into ketoacidosis Report
I learned new things in this article. Thanks! Report
Informative article. Report
My Mother had her first heart attack at 45 and died very recently at 69 of heart disease; I felt like if I could have given her a piece of my heart I would have. The doctors said the entire back wall of her heart collapsed. My sister had a heart attack last year at 52; she and my mother continued to smoke following their heart attacks. Please everyone, if you do smoke try to quit. You never want your family to see you suffer so much. *PS I live in new york; instead of outlawing large sodas they should outlaw cigarettes! Report
I am living proof heart disease can happen at any age. During labor my BP went to stroke level so high cold not do csection right away. Baby born 07-01 heart failure 08-01 age 28. I am now 38 and my life has changed so ladies please cut stress down and take care of yourself. Report
All true! My mom had a heart attack at 33 years old. She'd been to the doctor many times over a 3 month period, but they didn't recognize her "atypical' signs in the mid-80's. That heart attack disabled her 24 years ago. Report
Good article. take care of your hearts ladies. I didnt & had to have emergency heart surgury- no fun but its 6 years later and I am well. However only just started to take care of myself as I thought I was super woman but now Im scared of diabetes.So I have joined Spark and will stay and loose weight and get fit!! Report
Excellent article. Thank you for bringing up this topic. My mother died at age 62 of a heart attack, my mother's mother was 73 when she died of heart disease. My two grandfathers died at 40 and 50 from heart attacks, and my father's mother was on 56 when she died of a heart attack. I have been studying nutrition and fitness and have become a health coach to help others. We can prevent heart disease by living a healthy lifestyle. 80% of diseases are lifestyle related. Together, we can turn these statistics around and live long and healthy lives. Report
My mother died at 51 of heart disease. She has her first heart attack at 39 and bypass surgery at 41. Last year my sister died of heart disease. Same history as my mother.
My husband is a heart patient and his cardiologist checked my out even had a thalium
tread mill and he said that I take after my fathers family who all live into their 100's. Even knowing this I still try to eat heart healthy and know not to live a sedentary lifestyle.
This was a wonderful article. Report
At the age of 29 I had a stroke that resulted from a hole in my heart. This is a very real problem in young and old women. I think that more emphasis and education should be brought to light regarding this issue. Stroke and Heart Disease kill more women every year then all the cancers and other medical conditions combined. I honestly think that every women should have a full cardiac work up in their early 20's to access the condition of their heart! Report


About The Author

Karen Gardner
Karen Gardner
Karen has worked as an editor and freelance writer for more than 20 years. Her work has appeared in a number of national, regional and local publications.