Diseases of the heart and circulatory system kill over half a million women in the U.S. every year- far more than breast cancer. Yet often, heart attacks in women go unnoticed or unreported. This is because some women and their doctors do not always take heart disease symptoms seriously, and also because women’s symptoms are sometimes more subtle than men’s.

Women do not often view heart disease as a women’s problem. They may frequently continue activities when they feel ill, either seeing their symptoms as not serious, or just not realizing that they may represent a heart condition.

Understanding Warning Signs

Women’s symptoms of heart disease can be different and often more subtle than men’s. They frequently continue activities when they feel ill, not realizing that what they’re experiencing may represent a heart condition. It’s important to note the gender differences in risk factors and symptoms and to remember that just because a symptom is subtle, that does not mean it’s not serious.

Warning Signs of Heart Attack in Women

  • Uncomfortable pressure, fullness, squeezing, or pain in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
  • Pain that spreads to the shoulder, neck, or arms.
  • Chest discomfort with light-headedness, fainting, sweating, nausea, or shortness of breath.
  • Deep back pain right between a women’s shoulder blades

Other Warning Signs

  • Unusual chest, stomach, or abdominal pain.
  • Shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, and dizziness.
  • Unexplained anxiety, weakness, or fatigue.

Risk Factors for Women

Smoking is the single most preventable risk factor. Women who smoke increase their heart disease risk two to four times above that of non-smoking women. If you don’t smoke, don’t start! If you do smoke, call our Pulmonary Rehab department (208-529-6183) for information about our smoking-cessation programs, and we’ll help you quit now!

High cholesterol in the blood can build up and lead to deposits that narrow arteries and block blood flow. There are two main types of cholesterol:

  • LDL (low-density lipoprotein) is often called “bad cholesterol” because it raises the risk of heart disease and stroke.
  • HDL (high-density lipoprotein), or “good cholesterol”, helps to remove cholesterol from the blood, and lowers the risk of heart disease. Research shows that low levels of HDL appear to be a stronger risk factor for women than for men. Losing extra weight, quitting smoking, regular physical exercise, and diet can boost HDL cholesterol levels.

High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is the most important risk factor for heart failure and stroke. Women have a greater risk of developing high blood pressure if they are 20 pounds or more over a healthy weight for their height and build, have a family history of high blood pressure, take certain oral contraceptives, or have reached menopause. You should have your blood pressure checked at least every two years.

High blood pressure can be reduced by:

  • Reducing the sodium (salt) in your diet
  • Maintaining normal body weight
  • Limiting alcohol consumption
  • Increasing physical exercise
  • Taking prescribed medications

Physical inactivity is also a risk factor, especially when combined with excess weight and high cholesterol. Thirty minutes of moderate-intensity physical exercise at least four days a week will benefit heart health.

Being overweight or obese increases your risk of cardiovascular disease. Excess body weight in women is linked with coronary heart disease, congestive heart failure, stroke, and death from heart-related causes.

Poor diet can increase your risk of heart disease. You can reduce your risk by:

  • Consuming fewer “trans-fatty” acids (found in stick margarine, vegetable shortening, commercial bakery foods, and deep-fried foods)
  • Using non-hydrogenated, unsaturated fats (such as flaxseed, canola, soybean oils) as your
  • Main form of dietary fat
  • Using whole grains (barley, oat, and rye) as your main source of carbohydrates (substituting for items like baked potatoes and white bread)
  • Eating a diet high in Omega 3 fatty acids (such as salmon and plant sources)
  • Eating an abundance of fruits and vegetables

High Stress levels can lead to heart disease and a host of other problems. To reduce stress, exercise, eat and drink sensibly, get plenty of rest and take time to do things you enjoy.

Diabetes mellitus is a condition where the body is unable to either produce or respond to the hormone insulin. Women with diabetes have a much greater risk of heart disease and a heart attack, and are at much greater risk of having a stroke.

Other Risk Factors for Women

  • Menopause and estrogen loss
  • Birth control pills
  • High triglyceride levels
  • Excessive alcohol intake
  • Heart palpitations, cold sweat, or paleness

If you are having any of the above symptoms, call 911.