Heart disease kills more women than breast cancer. In fact, it kills more women than every form of cancer combined—one in four American women can expect to die of heart disease, making it the number one cause of death for women in the United States. Not only do more women die of heart disease than die of cancer, more women die of heart disease than men do, in part because people, doctors and patients alike, don’t realize that women don’t show heart disease the way men do. An estimated 42 million women have undiagnosed heart disease, and one reason it is undiagnosed is that health care professionals are looking for male symptoms women don’t have.
On top of that, the symptoms of heart disease in women are more subtle than in men, making them harder to spot as well as harder to recognize. When a woman has heart disease, it affects the main arteries, but is more likely to be in the smaller blood vessels in the chest as well than when a man does. She may experience neck or shoulder ache, abdominal pain, shortness of breath, throat pain, nausea, lightheadedness, dizziness and fatigue, or sweating.
The the symptoms are different, the risk factors for heart disease are largely the same in men and women, though not always to the same degree. Diabetes and stress, for example, are more strongly linked to heart disease in women. Smoking is one of the biggest controllable risk factors for heart disease in anyone, because it narrows the blood vessels, but this is particularly the case with the smaller ones that are more affected in women. The danger of smoking is also exacerbated by hormonal birth control; the hormones make the effects of smoking worse. On top of that, hormonal birth control is itself a risk factor, as are the hormonal changes wrought by menopause, both concerns unique to women.
To raise awareness of the special concerns women have for heart health, today is the American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women Day. Today is the day to start to take steps to lower your risk of heart disease death. That means quitting smoking. It means making the effort to get enough exercise, about 30 to 60 minutes most days. It means a heart-healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables and low in saturated fats. It means maintaining a healthy weight. It means talking to your doctor about an aspirin regimen that can help prevent arterial plaque from building up. It’s never too early, and you’re never too young, to start protecting your heart.