Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States.
It is important to understand the challenges and signs of heart problems in women so you can better manage your heart health.
Women’s Unique Heart Health Needs
More than 60 million women in the United States have heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It caused more than 300,000 deaths among women in the U.S. in 2021 — more than 20% of all women’s deaths.
Far more women die from heart disease than from breast cancer. And when combined with related diseases like diabetes and stroke, the death tolls are even higher.
The most common type of heart disease in women is coronary artery disease. Other common types of heart disease in women include arrhythmias and heart failure.
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Risk Factors for Heart Disease in Women
One of the greatest risk factors for heart disease in women is high blood pressure. The CDC says more than 56 million women in the U.S. have high blood pressure.
However, many women go undiagnosed, and fewer than one-fourth of women with high blood pressure have it under control.
Some other risk factors for heart disease include:
- High cholesterol.
- Mental health conditions (such as anxiety, stress, and depression).
- Older age.
- Poor diet.
- Race (Black women are at an increased risk compared to white women).
- Sedentary lifestyle.
- Too much alcohol.
Heart Attack Symptoms in Women
You may think chest pain is the most common sign of a heart attack. However, some women don’t experience chest pain at all before a heart attack. They often face subtler and more varied warning signs.
Warning signs of heart attack in women include:
- Chest pain.
- Jaw, neck, or throat pain.
- Nausea and/or vomiting.
- Shortness of breath.
- Upper abdomen or upper back pain.
The Gaps in Heart Disease Care for Women
Women often face gaps in heart disease care compared to men. Black and other underserved communities are at even greater risk.
The Circulation study found that cardiovascular specialists see women in the hospital less often than men after a heart attack. Also, women are less likely to receive prescriptions for beta-blockers and cholesterol-lowering drugs. They are also less likely to get procedures like angioplasty (stent placement) to restore blood flow.
According to the American Heart Association, bystanders are less likely to perform CPR on a woman than a man.
Women get much lower representation in cardiovascular clinical trials compared to men. For that reason, much of the existing cardiovascular research skews toward men.
Why Should Women Visit the Cardiologist?
Despite the danger of heart disease, many women don’t recognize it as their biggest health concern. Only 44% of women recognize heart disease as their biggest health threat, according to the American Heart Association.
It’s important to take steps to manage your heart health, which may involve visiting a cardiologist. Cardiologists can diagnose heart-related conditions such as:
- Coronary artery disease.
- Heart failure.
- Valvular disease.
- Vascular disease.
Cardiologists play a critical role in helping people who have or are at risk of having heart disease. You may need to visit a cardiologist if:
- You have a family history of heart disease.
- You have a related health condition like diabetes.
- You have one or more risk factors for heart disease.
- Your doctor refers you.
- You’re experiencing or recently experienced a heart attack or other heart-related issue.
- You’re experiencing symptoms of heart disease or heart failure.
Tips for Making the Most of Your Cardiologist Visit
If you need to see a cardiologist, it’s best to come prepared. Knowing what to expect and what you’d like to discuss can help you have a productive visit.
Below, find some tips to help you have a productive visit with your cardiologist:
- Compile a family heart history before your visit.
- Gather any relevant information about your own heart health.
- Get ready to discuss your overall health, including any other medical conditions you have.
- Put together a list of medications you’re taking, including dosage.
- Write down any other questions or concerns.
Depending on your heart health and your risk factors, you may need to make regular appointments with your cardiologist.
What Questions Should I Ask During My Cardiologist Appointment?
Depending on your case, you may have many different questions for your cardiologist. There are no bad questions when it comes to preventing heart disease.
Here are some questions to consider asking a cardiologist:
- Are there any medications or supplements I can take to help my heart?
- Are there any resources for women I should check out?
- How much should I worry about heart disease after menopause?
- How much exercise should I get?
- How much sleep should I get?
- How often should I get my blood pressure, blood sugar, weight, and cholesterol checked?
- How often should I see a cardiologist?
- Is my blood pressure/blood sugar/cholesterol/weight OK? If not, what do I need to do?
- My family has a history of heart disease. Should I worry?
- Should I worry about diabetes or any other medical conditions?
- What heart attack/heart disease warning signs should I worry about as a woman?
- What is my level of risk for heart disease?
- What risk factors should I worry about most?
- What screenings or tests do you recommend for women specifically?
American College of Cardiology has a list of questions for your cardiologist that is for women specifically.
If you ever have questions about your heart health, contact your cardiologist or a health care provider for guidance.
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.