Men and women alike can get heart disease, but it looks different. Symptoms of heart disease in the 25 percent of all women who have the condition are more subtle, less obvious, less noticeable. Women who get heart attacks don’t have the obvious, dramatic signs that men do. However, heart disease is the number one cause of death in women in the United States, killing more women than every form of cancer combined, and a leading cause of disability as well.
That’s why today is the tenth annual Go Red for Women Day, an event created by the American Heart Association in 2004. Women across the country are wearing red today to bring attention to the ways heart disease manifests in women, and the particular needs women have for heart healthy lifestyle practices. There are also educational programs to remind women what they can do to avoid and prevent heart disease.
Most of the common and expected symptoms of coronary incidents are primarily found in men. Symptoms in women are usually different, and in consequence more likely to be missed, though doctors and others are getting better at recognizing them. Women’s heart attack symptoms include neck or shoulder ache, abdominal pain, nausea, lightheadedness, dizziness and fatigue, and sweating. Coronary blockages in women, unlike in men, tend to include the smaller blood vessels as well as the main arteries, so the symptoms are less blatant.
Some of the risk factors are also different. Though the major ones, obesity and high cholesterol and blood pressure, apply to men and women alike, some others are more of a factor for women. Emotional stress can cause a condition called stress-induced cardiomyopathy, a form of severe heart muscle failure that resembles a heart attack, which is more common in women then in men. Stress also raises the risk of actual heart attacks more in women then in men. Metabolic syndrome is a combination of abdominal fat, high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar, and high triglycerides that raises a woman’s risk of heart disease more than a man’s. Smoking narrows the blood vessels, heightening the risk of the sort of small-vessel coronary artery disease to which women are particularly prone. Lowered estrogen levels after menopause have a similar effect.
That means it’s particularly important for women to quit smoking, keep an eye on blood pressure and cholesterol, and try to avoid stress. Other prevention tips include getting a good amount of exercise and enough sleep. Omega-3 fatty acid supplements can also help reduce the risk.