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Women and Heart Disease: What Women Need to Know

You may be surprised to learn that heart disease is the biggest threat to your health—even more so than breast cancer. And the same factors that put you at risk of a heart attack, also known as acute myocardial infarction, or AMI, also increase your chances of stroke and other health problems. The main risk factors include high blood pressure, smoking, poor diet, diabetes, family history, obesity, and sedentary lifestyle. If your heart is in trouble, your body may send you warning signs. It’s up to you to notice these and talk to your healthcare provider about them. Your health—and your life—could depend on it.

Woman holding hand on chest, looking distressed.

Learn to read the signs

When your heart isn’t getting enough oxygen, you may experience a feeling called angina. It can be a sign that you are at risk for having a heart attack. Angina is often referred to as "chest pain," but this can be misleading. It’s not always painful, and it’s not always in the chest. Many women have other symptoms along with—or instead of—chest pain or discomfort. Talk to your healthcare provider if you notice any of the following:

  • Discomfort, aching, tightness, or pressure that comes and goes, in the back, abdomen (belly), arm, shoulder, neck, jaw, or chest

  • Feeling much more tired than usual, for no clear reason

  • Becoming breathless while doing something that used to be easy

  • Heartburn, nausea, or a burning feeling that seems unrelated to food

  • Lightheadedness or faintness

Get to the heart of the problem

Women often don’t realize their symptoms could be related to heart trouble. Even some healthcare providers don’t make the connection. If you feel any of the symptoms listed here, see your healthcare provider and ask to be tested for heart disease—even if you’re not sure that’s the cause. Tests, such as an electrocardiogram (ECG), stress echocardiogram, nuclear imaging, and cardiac catheterization, will reveal more about the problem. If your symptoms are heart-related, your healthcare provider will start treatment.

Hormone therapy is not the answer

Healthcare providers used to think that older women could reduce their heart disease risk by taking hormones in pill form (hormone therapy or HT). It turns out that’s not true. In fact, HT could actually increase your risk of having a heart attack or stroke. Talk to your healthcare provider about the risks and benefits of HT. It may be prescribed for other health problems. But it should not be taken to prevent or treat heart disease

Is it angina or a heart attack?

Angina that occurs on exertion and goes away after a few minutes of rest or with medicine is considered stable angina. Unstable angina is unpredictable or unexpected angina symptoms that don't resolve, or go away and come back. This is a medical emergency and could be a sign of an active heart attack. Call 911 right away!

Online Medical Reviewer: Callie Tayrien RN MSN
Online Medical Reviewer: Stacey Wojcik MBA BSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Steven Kang MD
Date Last Reviewed: 7/1/2022
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