How Heart Disease Is Different in Women

What do you think is the biggest health risk for women: breast cancer or heart disease?

You might be surprised to learn that heart disease affects more women than all types of cancer combined, causing one in three deaths each year.

Find more information. Contact the UPMC Women’s Heart Program.

In many cases, heart disease is preventable, and the first step in prevention is understanding what puts you at risk. Learn more about women’s risk factors for heart disease, the symptoms of heart disease in women, and what you can do to keep your risks low.

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Heart Disease Risk Factors in Women

According to the American Heart Association, 90 percent of women have at least one or more risk factors for heart disease and stroke. Both men and women can have a higher risk of heart disease because of:

RELATED: What Women Need to Know About Menopause and Heart Health

Some other factors that can raise a woman’s risk of heart disease relate to her menstrual cycle and other health conditions, including:

  • Starting your period at a young age (10 or younger)
  • Going through menopause at a young age (44 or younger)
  • Being post-menopausal
  • Pregnancy-related complications like gestational diabetes, gestational hypertension, or preeclampsia
  • Medical conditions like lupus, chronic kidney disease, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

And, the more risk factors you have, the higher your risk may be. Make sure you talk with your doctor about all of your potential risks.

Heart Disease Symptoms in Women

Heart disease symptoms can be different for each person, and may be mild, moderate, or severe. They may come and go with certain activities, like when you exercise or do household chores, or may show up during times of emotional stress, like when you’re angry or upset.

Symptoms of heart disease can include:

  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue, or feeling very tired
  • Fluttering in the chest (also called heart palpitations)
  • Weight gain accompanied by swelling in the legs
  • Swelling in your feet or ankles
  • Coughing, especially a dry cough

The experts at the Magee-Womens Heart Program, part of the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute, recommend that you talk with your doctor about any symptoms you have or any changes you notice, especially with activity or emotion. While you’d likely call your doctor if you had chest pains, you might not think to tell him or her that your daily walk to the mailbox leaves you feeling winded, or that you get short of breath when you’re angry. Write down how you feel and what’s happening when you feel it, then talk with your doctor.

Heart Attack Symptoms in Women

It’s very important to know that heart attack symptoms can be different for women than they are for men. Women can have classic symptoms like chest pain, arm pain, and shortness of breath, but may also experience milder symptoms like:

  • Pressure or pain in the chest that comes and goes
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness or light-headedness
  • Pain in the jaw, arm, or back
  • Fatigue

If you think you or someone else is having a heart attack, call 9-1-1 right away. Early treatment can save your life.

6 Ways Women Can Stay Heart Healthy

You might be surprised to learn how simple changes and good habits can help your heart.

  • Choose a heart-healthy diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, fish, and low-fat dairy products.
  • Get – and stay – active. Aim for 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week. If you don’t have a full 30 minutes, break up your activity into smaller 10-minute sessions.
  • Quit smoking or using tobacco products. It’s never too late, no matter how long you’ve been smoking or using tobacco.
  • Find healthy ways to cope with stress. Physical activity, hobbies, and mediation are great ways to keep your stress levels in check.
  • Get regular check-ups with your doctor, and be sure to talk with him or her about any symptoms you feel.
  • If you’re diagnosed with heart disease, stay on your treatment plan. Following your doctor’s recommendations for healthy lifestyle changes and medications can help lower your risk for serious complications like heart attack and stroke.

The Magee-Womens Heart Program provides complete diagnostics, assessments, and treatment for women at risk for or living with heart disease. To learn more, visit the Magee-Womens Heart Program or call 1-855-UPMC-HVI (876-2484).

About Heart and Vascular Institute

The UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute has long been a leader in cardiovascular care, with a rich history in clinical research and innovation. As one of the first heart transplant centers in the country and as the developer of one of the first heart-assist devices, UPMC has contributed to advancing the field of cardiovascular medicine. We strive to provide the most advanced, cutting-edge care for our patients, treating both common and complex conditions. We also offer services that seek to improve the health of our communities, including heart screenings, free clinics, and heart health education. Find an expert near you.