One in four American women will die of heart disease—more than every form of cancer combined. It is the number one cause of death for women in this country, and actually kills more women than men. Unfortunately, most people don’t realize that heart disease looks different in women and men, and so they miss the signs because they don’t know what to look for. It is estimated, in fact, that 42 million women have undiagnosed heart disease. Women who get heart attacks don’t have the obvious signs men do.
The symptoms of heart attack in women are more subtle. Women experience neck or shoulder ache, abdominal pain, shortness of breath, throat pain, nausea, lightheadedness, dizziness and fatigue, and sweating. One reason for the difference is that when women have coronary blockage, it isn’t only the main arteries that are blocked, the smaller blood vessels in the chest are also affected.
The risk factors for heart disease are mostly the same in women as in men—though menopause and hormonal birth control are risk factors as well. In addition, the degree to which these things affect women and men can be different. Diabetes, for example, is more strongly linked to heart disease in women. The biggest controllable risk factor for heart disease in women is smoking. Smoking narrows the blood vessels, making them more prone to blockage, particularly 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. Similarly, while stress makes everyone more prone to heart ailments, this is particularly the case for 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.