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While heart disease is often thought of as an illness that primarily affects men, the truth is that women are just as vulnerable — they just might not know it.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women in the United States. Heart disease kills almost twice the number of women as cancer does. However, the risk factors, symptoms, and the age at which heart disease becomes a big threat can be quite different in woman than in men. It’s also important to be aware of heart attack symptoms in women, which can be different than for men.
Men are more likely to suffer a heart attack than women, and they're also more likely to have a heart attack at an earlier age. Aging is a major risk factor for women, with the risk rising as you get older. Heart disease in women becomes more common, on average, about four to six years later than in men. However, heart disease is the leading killer of women at all ages. And by the time a woman celebrates her 65th birthday, she has nearly the same risk of heart disease or heart attack as a man.
Know the Risk Factors to Prevent Heart Disease
Knowing what puts you at risk of developing heart disease can help your prevention efforts. Both sexes share some of the same risk factors for heart disease, including:
- Having high blood pressure or high cholesterol
- Being a smoker
- Having diabetes (While being diabetic increases the risk of heart disease in women and in men, it's a more potent risk factor in women.)
- Having a family history of heart disease
However, many other risk factors are unique to women:
- Having polycystic ovary syndrome
- Experiencing early menopause (before the age of 40)
- Having preeclampsia during pregnancy
- Having high triglyceride levels during pregnancy
- Having gestational diabetes
- Having high blood pressure during pregnancy
- Drinking large amounts of alcohol, meaning two or more drinks per day
In addition, it's thought that stress might increase the risk of heart disease in women, but the exact connection isn't yet clear.
Know the Heart Attack Symptoms in Women
Chest pain is the most common symptom of a heart attack in both men and women. But other heart attack symptoms in women are often more subtle than in men. Heart attack signs can include jaw pain, constant sweating, or shortness of breath. A woman having a heart attack may feel like she has the flu and just can't shake it, and she may never have any discomfort in the chest. Other symptoms include indigestion, sudden or overwhelming fatigue, and dizziness.
Helping Yourself Prevent Heart Disease
The good news is that the same strategies that men follow to reduce their heart disease risk are also effective in women. So start following the advice that you would give to your husband, brother, father, or uncle about healthy lifestyle changes to protect your own heart, including:
- Don’t smoke, or quit the habit if you are a smoker.
- Get some physical activity every day.
- Stick to a heart-healthy diet — one that’s low in sodium and unhealthy fats and rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
- Stay fit and maintain a healthy body weight.
- Control your blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglycerides levels.
- If you have diabetes, manage your condition and prevent complications.
Being aware of your heart disease risk and of heart attack symptoms in women can help protect you and encourage a heart-healthy lifestyle before heart problems set in. As a woman, you've got a bit more time before your risk increases as a result of age. Just don't wait until it's too late.