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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease is the leading killer of women in the United States, with one in four women dying of heart disease. The good news, reports the American Heart Association, is that 80 percent of strokes and heart disease events are preventable with lifestyle changes.

Why is the risk of heart disease in women higher than in men? The populations share many health concerns, but women have additional risk factors. It’s important to be aware of these risk factors so you can monitor and care for your health.

If you think you are at risk for heart disease, please call the Women’s Heart Program, part of the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute, at 855-876-2484.

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Heart Health Risk Factors Specific to Women

Kathryn L. Berlacher, MD, medical director of the Magee-Womens Heart Program, identifies the top risk factors for heart disease that are unique to women:

  • Hormones — Women produce more estrogen, which raises a woman’s HDL, the “good” cholesterol, and lowers LDL, the “bad” cholesterol. During menopause, estrogen levels decrease. This drop can lead women to develop high blood pressure (hypertension) and increased LDL cholesterol levels.
  • Pregnancy — Pregnancy itself does not raise the risk of heart disease. However, if a woman experiences high blood pressure, gestational diabetes, gestational hypertension, or preeclampsia during pregnancy, she is at higher risk for developing cardiovascular disease later in life.
  • Stress — Although stress is a risk factor for both sexes, women’s stress seems to produce symptoms more often. “Recent studies show that women who have chest pain during emotional or stressful events are at higher risk for developing cardiovascular disease,” Dr. Berlacher says. Stress increases inflammation in the body, which can disrupt plaque buildup in the arteries and ultimately cause heart attacks.

Other Risk Factors

Both women and men can have other risk factors for heart disease, Dr. Berlacher says, including:

  • Family history — Family history of heart disease, including parents and siblings, is important. If one or more of these close family members has heart disease, “you are at higher risk for having it, because it’s thought to be a genetic condition,” says Dr. Berlacher.
  • High blood pressure Those with hypertension are at a higher risk for stroke or cardiovascular disease.
  • Diabetes Someone with borderline diabetes or who has been diagnosed with diabetes has a higher risk of heart disease. People with diabetes can also develop high cholesterol more quickly than those who do not have the disease.
  • Smoking People who smoke have a higher risk of heart disease and stroke. “Any amount of smoking will increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, even if it’s just one cigarette per day,” says Dr. Berlacher. Smoking causes inflammation in the body and hardens the arteries, increasing a person’s risk for stroke or heart attack. In fact, women who smoke are at risk of having a heart attack 19 years earlier than women who don’t smoke.
  • Diet An excessive amount of meat, fried foods, and cheese also can increase heart disease risk.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis and lupus Conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus increase a person’s risk of heart disease.

RELATED: You Need to Know These 5 Heart Health Numbers

Know the Warning Signs of Heart Disease in Women

Knowing the warning signs for cardiovascular events may enable you to catch problems earlier. Getting medical help at the first sign of trouble can improve the likelihood of a better outcome, with fewer complications. Symptoms of a heart attack are a little different for women with heart disease than for men, Dr. Berlacher says.

For women with heart disease, symptoms of a cardiac event or heart attack may include:

  • Intermittent pressure or pain in the chest
  • Nausea
  • Pain in the jaw, arm, or back
  • Severe fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating

Although men also experience some of these symptoms (including chest pain and arm pain), the symptoms may be less dramatic in women.

For any symptoms of a heart attack, it’s important to seek medical care immediately.

For other types of heart disease, also look for symptoms, such as:

Staying Healthy

Your heart disease risk factors can help you and your doctor decide whether you need heart function screenings, tests, or interventions. You can also discuss lifestyle changes that may decrease your risk.

According to the CDC, about 64 percent of women who die of coronary heart disease did not display symptoms, which means it’s important to consider your risks and take appropriate preventive measures.

Reducing Stress

It’s impossible to eliminate stress entirely, but you can try to cultivate a lifestyle that reduces stress: exercise regularly, get enough sleep, and make time to engage in activities that let you relax.

Eating Right

Eating whole foods is a great way to maintain a healthful diet, which is good for your heart. “The more food that comes directly from the ground or directly from a tree, the better,” Dr. Berlacher says. “The less food that comes out of a can, bag, or box, the better.”

Aspirin: Yes or No?

Researchers have explored the use of baby aspirin as a preventive measure. However, “you may not need a baby aspirin,” Dr. Berlacher says. “Baby aspirin can increase your risk for bleeding, so the potential benefit may be about the same as the risk of harm in some individuals.” Consult your doctor before taking baby aspirin or any type of supplements, including herbal supplements.

If you think you are at risk for heart disease, please call the Women’s Heart Program, part of the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute, at 855-876-2484.

If you have questions about full, in-network access to UPMC doctors and hospitals, please call our help line at 1-855-646-8762.

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.