When it comes to our bodies, namely our hearts, men and women aren’t equal. While heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women in America. Heart disease kills 500,000 women each year—over 50,000 more women than men. Women are more likely than men to have a second heart attack within a year of the first one.
Heart disease is a term used to describe any number of ailments that affect your heart. While heart disease is can often used interchangeably with cardiovascular disease and coronary artery disease—conditions that generally refer to the narrowing of the arteries caused by plaque—heart disease in reality includes almost all diseases of the heart and blood vessels.
It’s simply anatomy, as a prime reason for women being at a higher risk of heart disease than men. Here are just a few reasons:
- Women’s hearts and arteries are smaller than men’s. Small arteries are simply the result of a smaller body size and hormones: estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. Smaller arteries are more prone to blood clots.
- Heart plaque is softer in women. Plaque is the waxy substance that builds up inside our coronary arteries over time. For women, heart plaque is more likely to dislodge easily, increasing the risk of a heart attack.
- Chances of heart disease increases with age, particularly for women. Estrogen is thought to protect women’s hearts. With menopause however, the drop in estrogen leaves the heart unprotected, increasing the risk of cardiac problems. Women that have gone through early menopause, either naturally or because they have had their ovaries removed are twice as likely to develop heart disease as women of the same age who have not yet gone through menopause.
Women will commonly experience the classic symptoms such as chest pain and pressure when having a heart attack. However, they are also likely to experience other associated symptoms, such as:
- Shortness of breath or extreme fatigue
- Symptoms that manifest elsewhere, such as upper abdominal pain, nausea, dizziness, lightheadedness, or fainting
- New or an increased strength of headaches
- Ache in the back or between the shoulders
- Soreness or tightness in the chest that spreads to the jaw, neck, shoulders, ear or inside of the arms
Family can play a huge role in heart disease. If your family has a history of high blood pressure, stroke, or heart disease, you might carry some of the same genes that can lead to these problems. If you are diabetic, the likelihood of blood vessel damage is even greater.
While some risk factors such as age and a family history of early heart disease cannot be changed, there are many lifestyle changes that reduce your risk of heart disease:
- Be more physically active
Try for 30 minutes of moderate exercise per day. This doesn’t need to be done all at once; three 10-minute periods scattered throughout the day work just as well.
- Give up smoking
In addition to causing severe damage to the lungs, smoking also damages the artery walls which can lead to high blood pressure, stroke and diabetes.
- Follow a heart-healthy diet
Choose low-fat foods and those that are low in salt. Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and foods high in fiber like those made from whole grains.
While heart disease is more prevalent in women and less likely to be diagnosed, awareness and education are our greatest weapons.